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Apr 15, 2017

Toxic burden

Co-produced with PRX Logo

This week, Reveal goes to places where poisonous chemicals are so deadly that they can devastate a town. And they all have one thing in common: The people in these towns are overwhelmingly black, brown and poor. Through the dangerous combination of racist attitudes and cheap land, polluting industries often are avoiding responsibility – all while the government turns a blind eye.

We start in Columbus, Mississippi, where we meet Arthur Parker, a man who lives just down the street from a field where an energy and chemical plant used to be. People on his street started getting sick and neighbors noticed an oily substance in the soil in their backyards. Sharon Lerner, an investigative reporter with The Intercept, went to Columbus to learn more about what was in the dirt.  

Next, we go back to Anniston, Alabama, where David DesRoches, a reporter with our partner WNPR, tells us how toxic PCBs made their way into our environment. PCBs are chemicals that were created to withstand extreme heat and pressure and were once widely used in insulation before being banned by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Lastly, we head to Flint, Michigan, for an update on that city’s water crisis. Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith has covered this story since the very beginning of the controversy and her award-winning documentary, “Not Safe to Drink,” aired on Reveal last year.

DIG DEEPER

  • Read: The strange case of Tennie White from The Intercept
  • Revisit: Our in-depth look at PCBs with WNPR and Southern California Public Radio
  • More: Flint water crisis coverage from Michigan Radio

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

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Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

 

  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We're taking a look at toxic environments this week. Places where poisonous chemicals are so deadly, they can devastate a town. We'll visit a few places like that this hour. One thing they all have in common, the people in these towns are overwhelmingly black, brown, and poor.

 

[00:00:30] Racist attitudes and cheap land create the conditions that polluting industries take advantage of and the government neglects. We'll start in Columbus, Mississippi where Arthur Parker lives just down the street from a field where a factory used to be. He's had trouble with his backyard.

 

Arthur Parker: No trees or nothing. Every time we'd plant something, it would die.

 

Al Letson: He says many of the people on his street have been sick.

 

Arthur Parker: One of my neighbors died here. Mr. Malone. He had cancer and he died maybe about four years ago. It's a lot of them on this street that had cancer.

 

Al Letson: The Parkers noticed an oily substance in the soil of their backyard and they weren't the only ones. Sharon Lerner, an investigative reporter with the online news site The Intercept, went to Columbus to learn more about what was in the dirt.

 

[00:01:00]

Sharon Lerner:

 

Reverend Steve Jamison is the pastor of the Maranatha Faith Center, a church not far from Arthur Parker's house. In 1999, Reverend Jamison began digging to secure the foundation to expand the church. He came across little gooey beads that bubbled up in the soil.

 

Steve Jamison: We realized that we could not get rid of this black jelly-looking substance. The deeper we dug, the more we saw of it.

 

[00:01:30]

Sharon Lerner:

 

Reverend Jamison didn't know what the jelly-looking stuff was, but there was a factory about a quarter mile down the road that belonged to a company called Kerr-McGee. It was a giant energy and chemical company. It's perhaps best known for operating the nuclear facility where Karen Silkwood was poisoned by plutonium.

 

[00:02:30] Reverend Jamison had never seen the movie about Karen Silkwood and he didn't know what the plant made. He called the factory and they sent a manager over who told him that whatever was in the dirt wasn't dangerous. A few weeks later, Kerr-McGee sent a cleanup crew to Reverend Jamison's site.

 

Steve Jamison: When they came over, they came over with back hoes and about 15 workers all dressed in Hazmat. I'm thinking that you just told me that this was not a bad product and it wouldn't hurt me, but your men are wearing Hazmat suits. At that point in time, I stopped them and our lawyer got involved. That's how the thing got started.

 

Sharon Lerner: Kerr-McGee's lawyers got involved, too. The company and the pastor battled for years over what turned out to be creosote. Creosote is a tarry mixture of more than 200 chemical compound. The company had used it for decades to coat railroad ties and a lot of it has seeped into the soil.

 

[00:03:00] The EPA classifies creosote as a probable human carcinogen. It's also associated with a range of health problems, including kidney and liver troubles and chemical burns. While the court battle dragged on, the spot where the pastor had dug remained open on the church property. In 2007, the city covered it over with concrete. After it was covered, Kerr-McGee insisted that there was no creosote on the property, but Reverend Jamison wasn't convinced.

 

Steve Jamison: Kerr-McGee had gone to court on this process and said, "Your Honor, we have cleaned their property up. There's no creosote on that property." I kept saying yes, there is. It's under the concrete.

 

Sharon Lerner: Reverend Jamison felt if he could look under the concrete, he could prove there was still creosote in the soil.

 

[00:03:30]

Steve Jamison:

 

I said we have to hire somebody else to make sure we can do this. We went and found Tennie out of Jackson.

 

Tennie White: My name is Tennie White. I'm 58 years old. I'm a little short African-American lady.

 

Sharon Lerner: Tennie White owned a small environmental testing lab in Jackson. She'd been performing and analyzing tests on water and soil for dozens of years and could make sense of the reports that Kerr-McGee was presenting in court.

 

[00:04:00]

Steve Jamison:

 

She knew what numbers and what things to look for, so she could read the reports. She said, "Oh no, you skewed this number" or "You put a decimal point here when it should have been there".

 

Sharon Lerner: The city told Reverend Jamison not to move the concrete on his property. Tennie said he should to prove the creosote was there.

 

Steve Jamison: I get my back hoe, I get in that ditch, pull it in, nothing but creosote.

 

Tennie White: A huge pile of black, shiny, tarry creosote sitting right there on Reverend Jamison's property where everybody told him it wasn't.

 

Sharon Lerner: Tennie's work with Reverend Jamison ultimately led the Environmental Protection Agency to declare 90 acres around Kerr-McGee's plant in Columbus a [inaudible 00:04:56] site. The victory also inspired Tennie and Reverend Jamison to travel around the Deep South helping other people struggling with environmental contamination. They started the Coalition of Communities for Environmental Justice in 2009.

 

[00:05:00]

Steve Jamison:

 

We coined the phrase, "Mississippi's still burning" because everywhere we went and looked, we saw some in Hattiesburg, we saw it in Ocean Springs, we saw it in Grenada. The government had been made aware of all these situations but it was doing nothing about it.

 

Sharon Lerner: Tennie found the situation in Hattiesburg particularly heartbreaking. That's where Kerr-McGee operated their Gulf States creosote plant.

 

[00:05:30]

Tennie White:

 

I went to a community meeting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and these women talked about losing their babies. They talked about miscarriages, they talked about stillborn babies, they talked about losing babies in their first year of life. This was their reality.

 

Sharon Lerner: It was increasingly clear to Tennie that there was another element to the problem. She researched environmental cleanups around the state and she says the better off whiter communities tended to be treated differently.

 

[00:06:00]

Tennie White:

 

There was a creosote site in Wiggins, Mississippi that got cleaned up in a year, but they can't clean up Columbus or Hattiesburg in two decades.

 

Sharon Lerner: In 2009, she wrote a series of blunt angry letters to the head of the EPA in Washington, Mississippi's Department of Environmental Quality, and the State Attorney General making the case that poor black communities were treated unjustly. Heather Sanchez is the graduate student who in 2008 was writing her master's thesis about the coalition that Reverend Jamison and Tennie formed.

 

[00:06:30]

Heather Sanchez:

 

You can't forget the first time you meet Tennie White. You could just tell she knew her stuff.

 

Sharon Lerner: Heather saw Tennie explain the creosote problem to the Hattiesburg city council.

 

Heather Sanchez: She left the room speechless because her presentation led me at least to believe that it was very clear what had happened in that community, that an industry came in and they polluted and they didn't clean up.

 

[00:07:00]

Sharon Lerner:

 

Tennie's activism didn't pay well. Sometimes it didn't pay at all.

 

Heather Sanchez: They met in a church, so they would pass the plate around from time to time. They would all give what they could to Tennie and that's how she would work.

 

Sharon Lerner: Tennie and Reverend Jamison listened to people's complaints, explained technical terms, and told residents about similar situations in other towns.

 

[00:07:30]

Heather Sanchez:

 

Instead of just one community talking about their problems, they came together as like, "Here we are three communities living different parts of the state all facing the same types of problems." I think when they showed up in number like that and they had the science and the data to back it up, people had to listen.

 

Sharon Lerner: Reverend Jamison began to worry that Tennie might be getting too much attention.

 

Steve Jamison: We tried to get Tennie to calm down. She was very passionate. I said, "Tennie, you're fighting some big, big boys here. Let's take it one at a time." But she was all over the state.

 

[00:08:00]

Sharon Lerner:

 

Reverend Jamison was clearly worried that Tennie would get herself into trouble, but even he was surprised about what happened next. It was the summer of 2009 and an EPA special investigator showed up at Tennie's lab. He wanted to talk about some tests she'd been hired to do. The investigator visited a second time and the agency eventually accused her of making up the test results. When Reverend Jamison heard about this, he felt the explanation was simple.

 

[00:08:30]

Steve Jamison:

 

I think she was set up because she was putting the pressure in all the right places.

 

Sharon Lerner: But the charges against Tennie turned out to be anything but simple ... Tennie, are you there?

 

Tennie White: I'm here.

 

Automated: This call is from a federal prison.

 

Sharon Lerner: The EPA along with the Department of Justice charged Tennie with fabricating test results and lying to federal investigators. In 2013, Tennie was convicted and sentenced to 40 months in federal prison. We talked about her case in 15 minute phone conversations spread out over several months.

 

[00:09:30] She explained that it all hinged on work she'd done for one company, BorgWarner, which makes car parts. State regulations require the company to test its wastewater for metals and they'd hired Tennie to do the testing. The company said Tennie hadn't supplied all the data she was supposed to and reported her to the EPA ... What trouble were you causing EPA, do you think?

 

Tennie White: I was going over EPA Region 4's head and going to Washington DC and making a stink about what had happened at Columbus when the Southeast region was already aware of it and had been aware of it for some years. What they could tell me about it later was Columbus was just one of those places that fell through the cracks. I contend that was a pretty big crack.

 

Sharon Lerner: She had been going after the EPA, but now they were coming after her. I asked Borg-

 

  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Sharon Lerner: But now they were coming after her. I asked BorgWarner for an interview several times and they declined, but at the trial several of their employees testified that the reports Tennie turned into the company, called DMRs, were based on fabricated data. Tennie denied this but couldn't back up her claim. She says the hard drive where she stored the data had crashed.

 

Tennie White: They subpoenaed my hard drive. When we asked for a copy of the hard drive, they subpoenaed something I couldn't even search.

 

[00:10:30]

Sharon Lerner:

 

Tennie's lawyers argued that the test had no environmental consequence, and later tests showed no excess metals in the water. The prosecutors didn't dispute that fact, so it was unclear why she landed in court, let alone prison. I called the EPA many times in the hope that I might get someone to address these questions on tape. I never did, but I did speak to Doug Parker. He's a former EPA official who was in charge of the agency's criminal division during Tennie White's investigation and prosecution. He was familiar with the case, but didn't know all the details. He told me the EPA ranks its criminal investigations.

 

[00:11:00]

Doug Parker:

 

For example, if a case involved a death or serious bodily injury, it was automatically at the top.

 

Sharon Lerner: So I asked him why Tennie's case was prosecuted if it involved no environmental harm. When I reminded Doug that Tennie was sentenced to more than three years, he acknowledged that her punishment was unusually harsh.

 

[00:11:30]

Doug Parker:

 

It's a significant sentence and is not one that I would expect for that.

 

Sharon Lerner: But he said that Tennie wasn't the only person who had been charged for the falsifying DMRs and that it's crucial that lab owners be held to a high standard.

 

Doug Parker: If you don't have that level of honesty and accurate reporting, the whole environmental compliant structure can potentially crumble.

 

Sharon Lerner: The average sentence of people convicted by the government of criminal environmental offenses is 18 months in prison. Tennie got 40. And remember Kerr-McGee, the company that had polluted Reverend Jamison's churchyard? Turns out his was one of thousands of sites across the country it had polluted with creosote and other hazardous materials. So what happened to them? It gets a little complicated. Kerr-McGee tried to avoid responsibility for the pollution by spinning off a new company and making that company responsible. The rest of Kerr-McGee was now profitable and was bought by yet another company called Anadarko. Still with me? Anadarko did end up having to pay five billion dollars to clean up the polluted sites. That sounds like a lot of money, but it was just a fraction of what the communities calculated they needed. Executives, meanwhile, made millions, and in one case, hundreds of millions of dollars in the deal. But none of them faced any criminal charges. So I asked Doug Parker why Tennie White served time when the chemical company executives walked free.

 

[00:13:00]

Doug Parker:

 

It is hard when it's laid out like that to reconcile that.

 

Sharon Lerner: Kerr-McGee no longer exists, so it couldn't respond to this story, but during the legal battle with the Reverend Jamison the company issued a statement that said, "Our environmental performance has been nationally recognized for environmental responsibility, and our plants operate safely and have not harmed anyone."

 

[00:13:30] I thought of one other person who might be able to explain why Tennie landed in prison. Robert Wilson was the BorgWarner Environmental Health and Safety manager who had hired Tennie to do those tests back in 2008. Though his name came up more than 100 times during the trial, neither the prosecution nor the defense called him to the stand. I wondered why. Robert now lives in LaGrange, Georgia.

 

[00:14:00]

Robert Wilson:

 

I arrived to the trial, and they took me off to a small room, where I sit for three different days.

 

Sharon Lerner: Robert told me the prosecutors had interviewed him about the case and told him that they might want him to testify. But he waited in the little room at the courthouse and was never called to the stand. He was allowed to watch the end of the trial from the courtroom, though.

 

Robert Wilson: I'm amazed at the lawyers they sent for the Justice Department out of Washington, D.C. and all the trouble they went to to prosecute a small-time little black business woman in Jackson, Mississippi. You don't bring that much firepower if you're gonna be stepping on ants. Somebody wanted Tennie put away and out of their hair.

 

[00:14:30]

Sharon Lerner:

 

It seemed pretty clear why the prosecution might not have wanted the jury to hear Robert's take on Tennie. He had worked with her for years.

 

Robert Wilson: She was great to work with. She was the epitome of professional, and her knowledge of the [inaudible 00:14:53] statutes and environmental law was impeccable.

 

Sharon Lerner: Robert was friendly with White, and knew she'd been helping poor communities take on polluters.

 

[00:15:00]

Robert Wilson:

 

I even tried to warn her at that time that, "You need to watch yourself because these people don't play. You have the possibility of causing them multi-million dollars in lawsuits and expenses and Tennie, they'll come after you with a sledgehammer."

 

Sharon Lerner: Robert said he couldn't be 100% sure that Tennie had provided the water-testing data because he left the job shortly after the test results would have arrived. From an environmental standpoint though, he felt the test didn't matter.

 

[00:15:30]

Robert Wilson:

 

It's almost a no harm, no foul thing. That's why I still don't understand to this day why they went after Ms. White. There wasn't even a great potential for any type of damage to the environment at all.

 

Sharon Lerner: And he couldn't imagine why Tennie wouldn't have performed the test.

 

Robert Wilson: What is her motivation for risking her whole career and reputation for a $150 test? That makes no sense to me whatsoever.

 

Sharon Lerner: I took Tennie's case to environmental attorney Victor Yannacone to get his opinion. Yannacone led legal crusades against Agent Orange in the pesticide DDT. He also helped start the Environmental Defense Fund. I wanted to know what he thought about the government's decision not to call Robert Wilson to the stand.

 

[00:16:00]

Victor Y.:

 

He could've pointed out to the jury that the tests were not the basis for any compliance or regulatory action.

 

[00:16:30]

Sharon Lerner:

 

Yannacone also questioned why Tennie's lawyers never mentioned that she was an activist during the trial.

 

Victor Y.: Of course the attorney should have introduced the fact she was an environmental activist and an environmental advocate for her community.

 

Sharon Lerner: I was never able to talk to Tennie's defense attorneys. I called and emailed them several times to ask if they would speak to me about this case. They declined.

 

After more than a year of corresponding and talking to her on the phone, I finally met Tennie in person. In June of 2015, she was released after serving 27 months of her sentence. Her son Troy and I went to pick her up at the Federal Correctional Institute in Tallahassee.

 

[00:17:00] The first thing she wanted to do as a free woman was get a real cup of coffee. She was in good spirits.

 

Tennie White: Nothing has happened to me that was really life-threatening, you know. They didn't manage to kill me. They couldn't shoot me, they couldn't eat me.

 

[00:17:30]

Sharon Lerner:

 

She didn't seem cowed by the experience.

 

Tennie White: Their objective was to shut me up. I will not be shut up.

 

Sharon Lerner: While she was in prison, Tennie lost the lab building she owned. She also lost the licenses she needs to operate it. As a convicted felon, it'll be tough to find a job. But she plans to continue doing exactly what she was doing before.

 

Tennie White: I found out that the best thing that I can do is simply tell the story. You don't need a license to tell the story. I honestly believe I need to finish what I start.

 

[00:18:00]

Sharon Lerner:

 

Tennie now lives in Jackson, Mississippi with her son, daughter-in-law, grandchild, and a dog. She recently began advising people on how to deal with contamination on a nearby plot of land.

 

Al Letson: Sharon Lerner is an investigative reporter with the online news site Intercept. You can find a link to her story at revealnews.org.

 

One county in rural Alabama was the heart of a new chemical [inaudible 00:18:40] in the 30s, and the toxic legacy has nearly wiped the community off the map.

 

[00:18:30]

Speaker 1:

 

I've been living in this mess all my life, and I'm 67 years old. All my life I've been living here. I lived around the corner, born and raised around the corner there. I've been living in this. They're just probably waiting on all of us to die out, 'cause everybody is gone, just right out in here.

 

[00:19:00]

Al Letson:

 

That and what a weakened EPA could mean for minorities, next on Reveal.

 

Speaker 2: Today's show is sponsored by Talkspace, the online therapy company. For as little as $32 a week, you can work with an experienced, licensed therapist hand-picked just for you. On Talkspace you can send text, audio, and video messages to your therapist and talk about your life or just work on feeling a little bit happier. To sign up or learn more, go to talkspace.com/reveal. And to show your support for this podcast, use code REVEAL to get $30 off your first month. That's code REVEAL at talkspace.com/reveal.

 

[00:19:30]

Al Letson:

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Al Letson: Investigative reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. When President Trump nominated Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, many environmental activists got worried. As the attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt spent years suing the EPA over what he sees as regulatory overreach. Many think his appointment is a part of a plan to eventually dismantle the agency. But long before Pruitt, the EPA's record on environmental justice was a mixed bag. I asked Lisa Garcia about the agency's record. She was a senior advisor on environmental justice at the EPA during the Obama administration. She's now lead lawyer at Earthjustice.

 

[00:20:30] So, let me ask you this, an analysis of the EPA's Office of Civil Rights found that they hadn't made a formal finding of discrimination in 22 years. So for me, the big question is, why do we need them?

 

Lisa Garcia: I think one of the things about environmental justice is, that there's still a need to really focus on communities that have been left behind and haven't reaped the same benefits. It'll be terrible for the United States to have halted the progress we've made on protecting our environment and really making inroads to protect public health. And it would be devastating if this is the EPA that takes us backwards.

 

[00:22:00] And then just quickly on the civil rights piece, so the Office of Environmental Justice and the Office of Civil Rights, kind of have two different mandates. One is out of the Executive Order, which is a lot more voluntary. And the Office of Civil Rights, in my mind is, it's an enforcement office, so it is bad news that the EPA has never found a claim that meets the disbarred or discriminatory prong in the law. But, I do think that throughout the Obama administration and over the 10 years you've seen improvements on how they're handling it. And we hope that this administration, the Trump administration, will allow that to go forward because I think the Civil Rights Office at the EPA really needs to improve, so I would agree with that assessment.

 

Al Letson: So, I mean, that was my next question. Exactly what's going on with the environmental justice at the EPA now?

 

Lisa Garcia: Well, unfortunately, the EPA is under attack. One of the things that we have heard, is that the Office of Environmental Justice and the work that they're doing is slated for being cut. I'm outraged personally, just because those are people working there. They've dedicated their lives to environmental justice, to making sure that benefits flow through to some of the most forgotten communities, and so, it's just this shame on a personal level. But I have to say that, I think it's the most fiscally irresponsible decision. It's only 45 to 60 people, and so, you're not getting much savings, but you're losing an office that has one of the biggest bangs for your buck. In that, they give so much to EPA, and so much to running that agency, and also so much to communities across the United States. To me, it sounds like a terrible decision and an uneducated decision.

 

[00:23:00]

Al Letson:

 

Have you talked to your former colleagues at the EPA?

 

Lisa Garcia: I have a little bit, yes.

 

Al Letson: What's the feeling like in the building? Like, how are the employees feeling knowing that all these cuts are coming?

 

Lisa Garcia: The budget came out even before anyone had really assessed a lot of the programs at the EPA or had talked to staff. And so, I think that was kind of a morale hit. In that, the initial budget or the proposed budget, kind of was created without talking to folks and without really having Pruitt, the administrator, be there for that long and really assessing the value of each program and what EPA does. In fact, I heard that the administrator spoke at a public event with a bunch of state regulators and the states are even upset because if you cut 31% of the budget, that's going to flow through huge cuts in the states. It's a huge domino effect, and anyway, so I think people at EPA are not happy and they're waiting to see what the real budget will be.

 

[00:24:00]

Al Letson:

 

If you could talk to the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, what would you say?

 

Lisa Garcia: I worked for two great administrators, Lisa Jackson and Gina McCarthy, so it's very hard to say what I would say to administrator Pruitt. But one is, I would say, while there is a political aspect to his role, that at EPA in particular, the role has to be to really try to think of the future of the United States and think of the future of our environment. You know, politics may be for the next three years or four years, or however long he's going to be there. That he really needs to look into the future and think hard about what kind of future he wants for his family, or his family's children's families. You know, I understand that they're going to cut the budget and I understand that there's going to be some painful times ahead, but I hope that it's not so adversarial as people have painted it. Maybe he'll get a different perspective and understand that the EPA doesn't have some office of evilness, where they're just trying to undo industry and undo jobs and take away people's livelihood. So I think, you know, I'm hoping that it will humble him a little bit.

 

Al Letson: Lisa Garcia was a senior advisor on environmental justice at the EPA during the Obama administration. She's now a lead lawyer at Earthjustice. Thanks to [inaudible 00:25:38] for producing that interview.

 

[00:25:30] One of the crucial responsibilities for the EPA, is the regulation of dangerous chemicals. But even when the agency does ban something, that doesn't mean it disappears from the environment. Some of these chemicals you can trace back to when they first appeared. In 1929, a small factory in Anniston, AL, owned by the Swann Chemical Company, began making PCBs. PCBs are chemicals that were created to withstand extreme heat and pressure. They became widely used in insulation. In 1935, Swann was bought out by another chemical company called, Monsanto. Today, we know it as a global, agricultural giant. Besides producing herbicides, like Roundup, it's in the forefront of bio-technology. But half a century ago, PCBs were Monsanto's golden ticket. The company was the sole manufacturer of PCBs in the United States. It was lucrative until scientists linked it to serious illnesses, including cancer. The chemical was banned four decades ago, but the toxic legacy is still with us today. For a look at the damage PCBs have caused, we sent reporter, David DesRoches, of our partner WNPR to the place where it all began.

 

[00:26:30]

David DesRoches:

 

On the outskirts of Anniston, white steam hisses its way into the sky, rising out of the smoke stacks of the former Monsanto Chemical Facility. Other chemicals are made there now, but for some 40 years, the factory produced nearly one and half billion pounds of PCBs. Most of the chemical was sold to companies that made electrical equipment and building materials. As for the waste, tons of it, Monsanto dumped it into local water ways, or buried it in landfills. This was before there were laws regulating that kind of thing.

 

[00:27:30] Snow Creek winds through the West Anniston neighborhood and is connected to the chemical plant by a ditch. Curtis Ray is 67, he's lived in West Anniston all his life. Years ago, he and other kids from the neighborhood would swim in the creek, completely unaware of what was around them.

 

Curtis Ray: I know back in the day, we used to dam these waters up and swim in them. We were teenagers, we didn't know. You know, we used to swim in it, muddy water, me and my cousins and friends. They poisoned us and we didn't even know it.

 

[00:28:00]

David DesRoches:

 

Local churches even baptized people there. But now, Snow Creek is just a cement lined ditch. No fish, no rocks, or algae, not even dirt. Curtis drives me around the mostly African-American neighborhood, that's flanked by the chemical plant.

 

[00:28:30] Do you remember what this used to be?

 

Curtis Ray: Yeah, that used to be a motel ... Used to be a motel there.

 

David DesRoches: What about that one there, do you know?

 

Curtis Ray: I think that was a washing place, where you wash your clothes there.

 

David DesRoches: Weathered boards dangle over windows, they look like a slight breeze would rip them right off.

 

Curtis Ray: See all these empty houses here? There's a lot of empty houses out here now. A lot of these people died and left their houses and all that ...

 

[00:29:00]

David DesRoches:

 

Curtis says people in West Anniston die of all sorts of strange diseases. But Alabama doesn't track most illnesses, so it's hard to verify this. He takes me to see a friend, Sylvia Curry. Her house sits at the bottom of a hill, with several boarded up homes across the street overgrown with weeds.

 

[00:29:30]

Sylvia Curry:

 

This used to be a beautiful place. Flowers, I can't even plant flowers, they don't grow. Gardens won't grow, no, won't nothing.

 

David DesRoches: Like Curtis, Sylvia tells me about rampant illnesses and people dying all around her.

 

Sylvia Curry: My husband, he died with a rare cancer. I've even had cancer twice, then I have a thyroid problem.

 

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Sylvia: I've had cancer twice. Now I have thyroid problem. I have a heart problem. Just sickness. Just sickness.

 

David D: The EPA has cleaned up hundreds of Anniston properties over the last 15 years. They basically removed the top 12 inches of dirt, which has the highest PCB concentrations. But that never happened at Sylvia's house.

 

Sylvia: I've been living in this mess all my life and I'm 67 years old. All my life I've been living here. I lived around the corner. I was born and raised around the corner there. I've been living in this so I guess (laughs) they're just probably waiting on all us to die out because everybody is gone just about out in here.

 

[00:30:30]

David D:

 

Even though millions have been spent cleaning up the soil, EPA tests show that PCB levels in the outdoor air haven't changed at all in a decade. It's Monsanto lasting legacy in Anniston. It's a legacy that goes back years and eventually led nearly every single Anniston resident to sue Monsanto and it's spinoff company, Solutia, for poisoning the city. During the trial lawyers for the plaintiffs presented internal Monsanto documents showing that the company had reason to believe PCBs were highly toxic as early as 1937 and kept making them for decades. When the verdict came out in 2003, media from around the world covered the lawsuits.

 

[00:31:30]

Speaker 3:

 

Smiles of relief in an Alabama courthouse after a jury found Monsanto and its spinoff company Solutia polluted the town of Anniston with toxic chemicals called PCBs.

 

David D: The jury found the companies guilty of six charges. Ellen Spears is a professor at the University of Alabama who wrote a book on Anniston's PCB battle.

 

Ellen Spears: The jury found the Monsanto chemical company and its corporate partners responsible for suppression of the truth, for negligence, for wantonness, for outrage. Alabama law defines outrage as, "conduct beyond all possible bounds of decency; atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society," and that's what the jury ruled in one of these cases.

 

[00:32:00]

David D:

 

Monsanto and Solutia settled the suit for $600 million, but the companies never admitted fault. After the trial Solutia's then CEO, John Hunter, talked to CBS news.

 

[00:32:30]

John Hunter:

 

I regret that the community and Solutia and everybody else is embroiled in this.

 

David D: But he continued.

 

John Hunter: We do not believe that there is any evidence that links PCBs to those serious long-term health effects.

 

David D: As big as the settlement was it didn't really help the 21,000 residents who sued. Most got less than $7,000 a piece. A handful of lawyers collected $249 million. Curtis [Ray 00:33:04] was one of the plaintiffs.

 

[00:33:00]

Curtis:

 

The lawyers didn't even pay for the blood tests. We had to pay for our own blood tests.

 

David D: Sylvia [Curie 00:33:15] got about $12,000 but most of that money was spent on hospital bills once her husband got sick.

 

Sylvia: And it's bad and it's depressing, too, to live like this, knowing that there is money that was for us and we can't do no better. So maybe one day. I hope to live to see it. I can move, get me another house, get rid of this one and move.

 

[00:33:30]

David D:

 

For children who haven't been paid yet because they're under 19, the average payout is going be less than $2,500 dollars. And now one of the most significant aspects of the settlement, a health clinic, is about to shut down.

 

[00:34:00] When the federal government did a huge four-year health study in Anniston they couldn't find a direct link to disease but they did find a correlation between PCB exposure and high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid problems, weakened immune systems, and some cancers.

 

Court records show that about 7,000 people are registered for services at the West Anniston Medical Clinic, but soon the clinic will close its doors for good. The funding has run out.

 

I meet with the Medical Clinic's advisory group for lunch at a crowded restaurant downtown. Curtis [Ray 00:34:45] is there and so is community activist Shirley Baker.

 

[00:34:30] Are you concerned about what will happen once the clinic shuts down?

 

Shirley Baker: Yes, of course, because there are so many of our claimants that really may or may not qualify for other resources and services that are in the community. So that is a major concern of ours that there are going to be several- a lot of our people that are going to be left without anything now. So that's a major concern. And I may as well put it on record that Solutia and Eastman need to continue funding our clinic.

 

[00:35:00]

Curtis:

 

I agree. I agree-

 

Shirley Baker: At least for another 40 years because that's how long they contaminated us.

 

David D: The company she's talking about, Eastman, bought out Solutia after it declared bankruptcy. I asked the company if they'd continue to fund the clinic but didn't get an answer. Both Sylvia [Curry 00:35:36] and Curtis [Ray 00:35:37] have illnesses consistent with chronic PCB exposure, but no definite connections have been made.

 

[00:35:30]

Curtis:

 

So we're going to keep pecking away and hoping that relief will come. We got to keep our hope and faith.

 

Sylvia: I would just like to see justice. I would. I would like to have the money too, yeah, but I would just like to see the justice done because they know they have done us wrong.

 

[00:36:00]

Al Letson:

 

That's the way it comes to us from reporter David DesRosches of WNPR in Hartford, CT. Coming up we go back to Flint, Michigan to see what's happening with the water crisis there now.

 

Speaker 9: Justice? It'll never be justice because we are American people and there is no snowball chance in hell that we should ever have to not have clean water in America. No way. So whatever the state did or those people did or whoever pushed that button did, they'll get their just day, their judgment day. I can't judge them. It's not for me to judge. But this agreement that they had with the lawsuit and everything that's going to put a bandaid on it, but it's still not solving the problem. No one in Flint will ever trust their water again. No one.

 

[00:36:30]

Al Letson:

 

The latest development from Flint coming up next. This is Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

[00:37:00]

Jeremy Scahill:

 

From the news organization that revealed Edward Snowden's secrets to the world comes a new podcast, Intercepted. I'm host Jeremy Scahill, a long-time war reporter and co-founder of The Intercept. Join me each week where uncompromised truths confront corporate and government power.

 

Speaker 11: There are actual neo-Nazi, white supremacists at the heart of government. This is more than a constitutional crisis. This is an existential crisis.

 

[00:37:30]

Jeremy Scahill:

 

Subscribe to Intercepted now on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. When you say Flint, Michigan the first thing you probably think of is contaminated water. High levels of lead starting turning up in the tap water there, but people didn't know it right away. It started when the town switched its water source from Detroit to the Flint River in the summer of 2014. Lindsay Smith has covered the story since the beginning for Michigan Radio. They produced the award-winning documentary, Not Safe to Drink, about the crisis, which we aired here on Reveal last year. We're going to talk to Lindsay about what's going on in Flint right now, but first let's listen back to a part of her original documentary.

 

Lindsay Smith: Eight months after Flint started pumping its drinking water from the Flint River [Leann 00:38:27] Walters stopped letting her kids drink it. Everyone from the four year old twins to her teenagers [J.D. and Kaley 00:38:32].

 

[00:38:30]

Walters:

 

We quit drinking the water in December when my 14 year old got sick and it started coming through our filter out the kitchen sink brown.

 

Lindsay Smith: That was December 2014. Walters says the water had this orangish-brown tinge that would not go away. Even when she put a fresh cartridge in the water the filter. And at this point she was putting a fresh cartridge in the water filter at least a couple times a month. Back when Flint was buying Detroit water she only replaced it a couple times a year. So she called the city out to come take a look. They sent Mike Glasgow, he's Flint's Utilities Administrator. Glasgow ran a test on Walters' water.

 

[00:39:00]

Mike Glasgow:

 

About a week later I got the results and it was pretty high for the lead. So I called her right away to let her know.

 

Lindsay Smith: The results were alarming enough that Glasgow called Walters right away. But he couldn't reach her that afternoon. He left her a voicemail.

 

Speaker 15: You have reached the voice mailbox of-

 

Lindsay Smith: Walters vividly remembers that message late that night.

 

Walters: Hi [Leann 00:39:31] it's Mike from the water department. I just wanted to call let you know we got your test back. Please whatever you do don't let your kids drink the water, don't make their juice with it, and please just give me a phone call back as soon as possible.

 

[00:39:30]

Lindsay Smith:

 

Walters tossed and turned all night worrying. How bad could the water be? By the time Walters did get a hold of Mike Glasgow the next day she was kind of panicked.

 

Walters: He was like, "Your number's at 104," and I'm like, "Okay, well what is it supposed to be?" He's like, "Not over 15." And I'm like, "Wait, what?"

 

Lindsay Smith: I just want to make sure you really get these numbers they're talking about. There is no level

 

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Lindsey Smith: ... get these numbers they're talking about. I mean, there's no level of lead exposure that's considered safe. But, any amount of lead in water above 15 parts per billion is a problem. At that level, cities are supposed to at least warn you how bad your lead levels are. The lead level in the water at the Walters' place was seven times higher than that. But at that moment, hearing that number, 104 parts per billion, Walters remembers ... She didn't know what to make of it.

 

LeeAnne Walters: Okay, and I'm like, "What does this mean?" He's like, "We don't know." He's like, "We've never seen a number like this before in the city." He's like, "It's the highest anyone's ever seen."

 

[00:40:30]

Al Letson:

 

It turned out that when Flint switched its water source, it stopped adding chemicals that prevent lead in old pipes from seeping into the water. Lots happened since this story first broke. The town is back on Detroit water and has started replacing old pipes. Congress has approved 100 million dollars in funding for Flint and the state is giving away free bottled water for now. Lindsey has continued to follow the story. She recently went to Flint and found people still worried about their water.

 

[00:41:00] Lindsey drove around in the pouring rain with community outreach and education, or Core teams.

 

GPS: You should reach your destination by 3:04 pm.

 

Al Letson: They go door to door making sure residents have a working filter for their faucets to keep lead out of their water.

 

Lindsey Smith: It's really crazy job. You have these teams of people. They're driving around in vans. Sometimes, they pull up like a whole city bus and teams of people load out of the bus with their clipboards and they wear vests on and everything. Just kind of like swarming apartment building-

 

[00:41:30]

Al Letson:

 

The Core teams have knocked on more than 80,000 doors. But, those doors don't always open.

 

Lindsey Smith: I mean, it's really difficult to get a hold of people. You've got vacant houses, people have jobs. And then once you get inside peoples homes, you find just like working with them to try to make sure that they have a working faucet filter. You think it would be pretty user friendly but, sometimes people think that they have one set up and the Core team will find that, "Oh yeah, they have a faucet filter, right? But, the cartridge isn't even in it." So, they've been using it for six months and there's nothing even in the filter filtering out the lead. Or they have had it on there for a year and they didn't know they needed to change the cartridge, or elderly people, they can't see the little red blinking light, they can hardly see it. So, there's just all these little things that make that job kind of a crazy job. You gotta be a good problem solver, that's for sure.

 

[00:42:30]

Al Letson:

 

The EPA and the state say the water is now safe to drink. But, they're also advising everyone in Flint to use filters at least for the next three years.

 

Lindsey Smith: I find that when I talk to people, most people don't even trust to drink it with it filter even though scientists have proven that it will remove the lead but, people just don't trust it. They'd rather drink bottled water.

 

Al Letson: Lindsey and the Core team pull up to the home of Eric Washburn.

 

[00:43:00]

Eric Washburn:

 

All right, how you doing?

 

Joe: Are you Eric?

 

Eric Washburn: Yes I am.

 

Joe: Okay, I'm Joe. I'm the guy that called and this Donna.

 

Lindsey Smith: I'm Lindsey!

 

Joe: And Lindsey.

 

Eric Washburn: How you doing? [inaudible 00:43:11]

 

Al Letson: They make their way into Eric's house, which he says a local church donated to him. But, it's a real fixer-upper.

 

Eric Washburn: I really appreciate this so much. I really do. We're trying to get this place fixed up and I got to get a Terminix guy out here and ...

 

Al Letson: Eric knows the underground pipe that brings drinking water into his home is made of lead. But, he can't get the filter to work.

 

[00:43:30]

Eric Washburn:

 

... Coz this keeps ... Every time I put in weight on this-

 

Joe: It makes [inaudible 00:43:39]

 

Eric Washburn: Yeah.

 

Joe: Okay.

 

Eric Washburn: And it leaks. And I got a bucket under there to catch it but, this one in here is leaking right here. [crosstalk 00:43:47] That one's leaking all the time.

 

Donna: Oh, yeah.

 

Eric Washburn: And-

 

Joe: So basically, what's happening here is that right here-

 

Eric Washburn: The one upstairs is leaking.

 

Joe: The resident faucet cannot hold a fixture. [crosstalk 00:43:58] It's too weak to hold a filter system. [crosstalk 00:44:01] So, what we have to do is put him on a fixture replacement program. [crosstalk 00:44:05] So, that way he can get the new faucet put in through the state program. [crosstalk 00:44:10] But, she's investigating the bathroom to see if he also has the same problem. It's either outdated or it won't hold a filter onto it.

 

[00:44:00]

Donna:

 

Yeah, we're just going to replace it-

 

Al Letson: The filters are a big part of the temporary solution to getting rid of lead in Flint's water because by the end of the summer, the state will stop giving away free bottled water in Flint. For more on what's been going on in Flint, Lindsey Smith joins us on the line.

 

[00:44:30] Lindsey, there have been some big developments. Let's start off with a recent report from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. What did they find?

 

Lindsey Smith: I mean, this really was a pretty comprehensive report that looked at a basic question, which was, "Did race play a role in causing the Flint water crisis?" And their answer was, "Yes." It was almost like ... to a lot of people that testified at the hearing, it was a 'no, duh' yes. Like a 'not-even-without-a-question' yes.

 

[00:45:00] Flint is a city that 41% of people live at the poverty level or below. You have 56% of the population that's African American. A median household income in Flint, I'm talking a household income is $25,000 a year. So, this report really ... It looked at the sort of situation that led to the water crisis and they went way back. They went back decades. Just systematic issues with housing and education that helped drained resources from Flint and into the suburbs. Job opportunities that African Americans weren't allowed to get in Flint decades ago. They kind of laid out that, that history shouldn't be ignored.

 

[00:45:30]

Al Letson:

 

So, when we talked to you last year, a couple people had been fired. But, has anyone been held accountable with criminal charges?

 

Lindsey Smith: So, the criminal investigation is still ongoing, believe it or not, Al. They've charged 13 current and former state, local government employees. Two of those people that have been charged, the tap people I would say, were two emergency managers that made the decisions to switch water sources. And you've got a couple of lower level employees that sort of flipped and are willing to work with prosecutors. But, because this is still an ongoing investigation, I wouldn't be surprised if more charges come down in the coming year, I would say.

 

[00:46:30]

Al Letson:

 

There's a recent settlement in federal court. What happened there?

 

Lindsey Smith: So, this is the settlement that the Natural Resources Defense Council and the ACLU of Michigan brought on behalf of Flint residents and they weren't seeking really anything monetary, right? They weren't looking for money. They wanted Flint to make sure that they were following the Safe Drinking Water Act and they won. They got this agreement out of the deal. It's a really unprecedented nature because a legal agreement. Everybody has been saying ... Oh, the state has been saying, "Oh, we'll replace lead lines in Flint." Now, we don't have to take their word for it, it's a binding legal agreement. And that is a huge win for people in Flint.

 

Al Letson: You went to a community meeting that was held by the [inaudible 00:47:19] in the federal lawsuit. And people were talking about what justice would look like to them. So, what'd they say?

 

[00:47:00]

Lindsey Smith:

 

The feedback that I got was not only getting pipes replaced, having a say in local decisions, having a say in the future water sources, and being able to make their own decisions without major state interference. Having Medicare for everybody because people have ... It's not just the lead exposure but, a lot of people have like weird rashes still on their skin, or they have high blood pressure related to it. Or just these medical problems and their medical bills add up. And that's something that nobody is paying for. And that's coming out of peoples' pockets.

 

[00:48:00] So, better access to health care. Also, the school systems are gonna be kind of dealing with the fallout where you had thousands of young children exposed. That's gonna have lasting effects. So, people really want special education services in the schools and they want improvements in their neighborhood. I mean, you still have a city where you drive through certain neighborhood and it's like lots and lots of empty houses. I don't know how you convince people to move in and invest in Flint. But, they definitely need good neighbors in neighborhoods to help revitalize things.

 

[00:48:30]

Al Letson:

 

Did you get to speak to anybody in the community?

 

Lindsey Smith: I talked to a woman, her name is Doris Allen. She had a lead level in her water ... one water test it was like 2000 parts per billion and the federal standard, by the way, is 15. So, we're talking pretty heavy duty lead in her water. She still hasn't had her lead line replaced. I asked her, "You know now that you'll get your lead line replaced. Will this be justice to you?"

 

[00:49:00]

Doris Allen:

 

Justice? It'll never be justice coz we are American people and there is no snowball chance in here that we should ever have to not have clean water in America. No way! So, whatever the state did, or those people did, or whoever pushed that button did, they'll get their judgment day. I can't judge them. It's not for me to judge. But, this agreement that they had with the lawsuit and everything, is gonna put a bandaid on it. But, it's still not solving the problem. No one in Flint will ever trust that water again. No one.

 

[00:49:30]

Al Letson:

 

What's the big picture? What's the future for Flint looking like?

 

Lindsey Smith: There are some huge decisions coming up in the next few months that are gonna play a big role in Flint's future and the future of the city's drinking water. Right now, the city is paying for two water sources. They're buying water from Detroit. They're also paying for this new pipeline that's not finished yet. Even if it was finished, the city water plant is not ready to be able to treat the water for at least another two years. So, you got financial strain on both ends there. And remind you, finances is what really kind of got Flint into this mess in the first place.

 

[00:50:00] So, that could be a big problem. The other thing for residents is, they have been getting a credit on their water bill. They pay some of the highest water rates in the country. Starting last month, that credit ended. So, now people are paying their full water bills. And for some people, that ... Oh man, that's a sore spot for some people, for sure.

 

[00:50:30]

Al Letson:

 

Lindsey Smith of Michigan Radio. Thanks so much for joining us.

 

Lindsey Smith: My pleasure.

 

[00:51:00]

Al Letson:

 

Our show today was edited by Deb George. Ike Sriskandarajah was our lead producer. Our staff includes Stan Alcorn, Fernanda Camarena, Julia B. Chan, Rachel de Leon, Mwende Hahesy, Katharine Mieszkowski, Michael Montgomery, David Richard, Neena Satija, Michael Schiller, Ike Sriskandarajah, Laura Starecheski, and Amy Walters.

 

Our sound design team is the Wonder Twins. My man J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Claire Mullen. They had help this week from Katherine Raymondo and Mary Lee Williams. Our head of studios Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Pyle, our editor-in-chief. Susanne Reber, our executive editor. And our executive producers, Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado Lightning.

 

[00:51:30] Support for Reveals provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Reveal is a co-production, The Center for Investigative Reporting, and PRX. I'm Al Letson. And remember there is always more to the story.

 

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