ANNISTON, Ala. — On the west side of Anniston, the poor side of Anniston,
the people ate dirt. They called it “Alabama clay” and cooked it for extra
flavor. They also grew berries in their gardens, raised hogs in their back
yards, caught bass in the murky streams where their children swam and
played and were baptized. They didn't know their dirt and yards and bass
and kids — along with the acrid air they breathed — were all contaminated
with chemicals. They didn't know they lived in one of the most polluted patches
Now they know. They also know that for nearly 40 years, while producing the
now-banned industrial coolants known as PCBs at a local factory, Monsanto
Co. routinely discharged toxic waste into a west Anniston creek and dumped
millions of pounds of PCBs into oozing open-pit landfills. And thousands of
pages of Monsanto documents — many emblazoned with warnings such as
“CONFIDENTIAL: Read and Destroy” — show that for decades, the corporate
giant concealed what it did and what it knew.
In 1966, Monsanto managers discovered that fish submerged in that creek
turned belly-up within 10 seconds, spurting blood and shedding skin as if
dunked into boiling water. They told no one. In 1969, they found fish in
another creek with 7,500 times the legal PCB levels. They decided “there is
little object in going to expensive extremes in limiting discharges.” In
1975, a company study found that PCBs caused tumors in
rats. They ordered
its conclusion changed from “slightly tumorigenic” to “does not appear to
Monsanto enjoyed a lucrative four-decade monopoly on PCB production in the
United States, and battled to protect that monopoly long after PCBs were
confirmed as a global pollutant. “We can't afford to lose one dollar of
business,” one internal memo concluded.
Lastmonth, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered General Electric Co.
to spend $460 million to dredge PCBs it had dumped into the Hudson River in
the past, perhaps the Bush administration's boldest environmental action to
date. The decision was bitterly opposed by the company, but hailed by
national conservation groups and many prominent and prosperous residents of
the picturesque Hudson River Valley.
In Anniston, far from the national spotlight, the sins of the past are being
addressed in a very different way. Here, Monsanto and its corporate
successors have avoided a regulatory crackdown, spending just $40 million
on cleanup efforts so far. But they have spent $80 million more on legal
settlements, and another lawsuit by 3,600 plaintiffs — one of every nine
city residents — is scheduled for trial next Monday. David Carpenter, an
environmental health professor at the State University of New York at
Albany, has been a leading advocate of the EPA's plan to dredge the Hudson,
but he says the PCB problems in Anniston are much worse.
“I'm looking out my window at the Hudson right now, but the reality is that
the people who live around the Monsanto plant have higher PCB levels than
any residential population I've ever seen,” said Carpenter, an expert
witness for the plaintiffs in Anniston. “They're 10 times higher than the
people around the Hudson.”
The Anniston lawsuits have uncovered a voluminous paper trail, revealing an
unusually detailed story of secret corporate machinations in the era before
strict environmental regulations and right-to-know laws. The documents —
obtained by The Washington Post from plaintiffs' attorneys and the
Environmental Working Group, a chemical industry watchdog — date as far
back as the 1930s, but they expose actions with consequences that are still
Officials at Solutia Inc., the name given to Monsanto's chemical operations
after they were spun
off into a separate company in 1997, acknowledge that
Monsanto made mistakes. But they also said that for years, PCBs were hailed
for preventing fires and explosions in electrical equipment. Monsanto did
stop making PCBs in 1977, two years before a nationwide ban took effect.
And the current scientific consensus that PCBs are harmful, especially to the
environment, masks serious disputes over just how harmful they are to
Today, the old plant off Monsanto Road here makes a chemical used in
Tylenol. It has not reported a toxic release in four years. Robert Kaley,
the environmental affairs director for Solutia who also serves as the PCB
expert for the American Chemistry Council, said it is unfair to judge the
company's behavior from the 1930s through 1970s by modern standards.
“Did we do some things we wouldn't do today? Of course. But that's a little
piece of a big story,” he said. “If you put it all in context, I think
we've got nothing to be ashamed of.”
But Monsanto's uncertain legacy is as embedded in west Anniston's psyche as
it is in the town's dirt. The EPA and the World Health Organization classify
PCBs as “probable carcinogens,” and while no one has determined whether the
people in Anniston are sicker than average, Solutia has opposed proposals
for comprehensive health studies as unnecessary. And it has not apologized
for any of its contamination or deception.
In the absence of data, local residents seem to believe the worst. The
stories linger: The cancer cluster up the hill. The guy who burned the
soles off his boots while walking on Monsanto's landfill. The dog that died after
a sip from Snow Creek, the long-abused drainage ditch that runs from the
Monsanto plant through the heart of west Anniston's cinder-block cottages
and shotgun houses. Sylvester Harris, 63, an undertaker who lived across
the street from the plant, said he always thought he was burying too many
“I knew something was wrong around here,” he said.
Opal Scruggs, 65, has spent her entire life in west Anniston, the last few
decades in a cottage in back of a Waffle House behind the plant. But in
recent years, Monsanto has bought and demolished about 100 PCB-tainted
homes and mom-and-pop businesses nearby, turning her neighborhood into a
virtual ghost town. Now she has elevated PCB levels in her blood — along with
Harris and many of their neighbors — and she believes she's a “walking
“Monsanto did a job on this city,” she said. “They thought we were stupid
and illiterate people, so nobody would notice what happens to us.”
The Model City
Anniston was born at the height of the Industrial Revolution as a
mineral-rich company town controlled by the Woodstock Iron Works,
off-limits to all but company employees. It was named in 1879 for the foundry
owner's wife — Annie's Town — but it was nicknamed “The Model City of
the South” because it was supposed to be a kind of industrial utopia, a centrally
planned rebuke to the North's slums after the Civil War. The company would
provide the workers' cottages, the general store, the church, the schools.
It would take care of the community.
Anniston retains its Model City slogan to this day, but its paternalistic
social experiment was quickly abandoned. It soon developed into a
heavy-industry boomtown, dominated by foundries and factories with 24-hour
smokestacks. In 1929, one of those factories began manufacturing
polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Now that PCBs are considered “probable” human carcinogens by the EPA
and the World Health Organization, it is easy to forget that they were once
known as miracle chemicals. They are unusually nonflammable, and conduct
heat without conducting electricity. Many safety codes once mandated the use
of PCBs as insulation in transformers and other electrical equipment. They also
were used in paints, newsprint, carbon paper, deep-fat fryers, adhesives, even
bread wrappers. The American public had no idea of the downside of PCBs
until the late 1960s.
Monsanto did. Shortly after buying the 70-acre plant at the foot of
Coldwater Mountain in 1935, the company learned that PCBs, in the
doublenegative of one company memo, “cannot be considered non-toxic.” A
1937 Harvard study was the first to find that prolonged exposure could cause
liver damage and a rash called chloracne. Monsanto then hired the scientist
who led the study as a consultant, and company memos began acknowledging
the “systemic toxic effects” of Aroclors, the brand name for PCBs. Monsanto
also began warning its industrial customers to protect their workers from
Aroclors by requiring showers after every shift, providing them with clean
work clothes every day and keeping fumes away from factory floors.
One Aroclor manual reveals that “in the early days of development,” workers
at the Anniston plant had developed chloracne and liver problems. In
February 1950, when workers fell ill at a customer's Indiana factory,
Monsanto's medical director, Emmett Kelly, immediately “suspected the
possibility that the Aroclor fumes may have caused liver damage.”
Two years later, Monsanto signed an agreement with the U.S. Public Health
Service to label Aroclors: “Avoid repeated contact with the skin and
inhalation of the fumes and dusts.” The company also warned its industrial
customers about ecological risks: “If the material is discharged in large
concentrations it will adversely affect . . . aquatic life in the stream.”
But it did not warn its neighbors. “It is our desire to comply with the
necessary regulations, but to comply with the minimum,” an official wrote.
In 1998, a former Anniston plant manager, William Papageorge, was asked in
a deposition whether Monsanto officials ever shared their data about PCB
hazards with the community.
“Why would they?” he replied.
In the fall of 1966, Monsanto hired a Mississippi State University biologist
named Denzel Ferguson to conduct some studies around its Anniston plant.
Ferguson, who died in 1998, arrived with tanks full of bluegill fish, which
he caged in cloth containers and submerged at various points along nearby
creeks. This is what he reported to Monsanto about the results in Snow
Creek: “All 25 fish lost equilibrium and turned on their sides in 10
seconds and all were dead in 3 1/2 minutes.”
“It was like dunking the fish in battery acid,” recalled George Murphy, who
was one of Ferguson's graduate students at the time and is now chairman of
Middle Tennessee State University's biology department.
“I've never seen anything like it in my life,” said Mack Finley, another
former Ferguson grad student, now an aquatic biologist at Austin Peay State
University. “Their skin would literally slough off, like a blood blister on
the bottom of your foot.”
The problem, Ferguson concluded, was the “extremely toxic” wastewater
flowing directly from the Monsanto plant into Snow Creek, and then into the
larger Choccolocco Creek, where he noted similar “die-offs.” The outflow,
he calculated, “would probably kill fish when diluted 1,000 times or so.” He
warned Monsanto: “Since this is a surface stream that passes through
residential areas, it may represent a potential source of danger to children.”
He urged Monsanto to clean up Snow Creek, and to stop dumping
untreated waste there.
Monsanto did not do that — even though the warnings continued.
In early 1967, a group of Swedish scientists demonstrated publicly that
PCBs were a threat to the global environment. The Swedes identified traces
of PCBs throughout the food chain: in fish, birds, pine needles, even their
children's hair. They proved that PCBs are persistent — which, as one
lawyer drawled in court last spring, “is nothing but a fancy word for
action preparatory to actual cleanup.”
“We should begin to protect ourselves,” it said.
The Company Committee
In September 1969, Monsanto appointed an Aroclors Ad Hoc Committee to
address the controversies swirling around its PCB monopoly, which was worth
$22 million a year in sales. According to minutes of the first meeting, the
committee had only two formal objectives: “Permit continued sales and
profits” and “Protect image of . . . the Corporation.”
But the members agreed that the situation looked bleak. PCBs had been found
across the nation in fish, oysters and even bald eagles. They had been
identified in milk in Georgia and Maryland. They were implicated in a major
shrimp kill in Florida. Their status as a serious pollutant, the committee
concluded, was “certain.”
“Subject is snowballing,” one member jotted in his notes. “Where do we go
One option, as a member put it, was Green er et nettcasino beste-norske-casinos.com som ikke krever noen programvare for a fungere, det er flashbasert sa det eneste du trenger er en enhet som er kompatibel med flash. to “sell the hell out of them as long
as we can.” Another option was to stop making them immediately. But the
committee instead recommended “The Responsible Approach” — phasing out its
PCB products, but only once it could develop alternatives.The idea was to
maintain “one of Monsanto's most profitable franchises” as long as possible
while taking care to “reduce our exposure in terms of liability.” The
committee even drew up graphs charting profits vs. liability over time, and
urged more studies to poke holes in the government's case against PCBs.
But the company's own tests on rats, chickens and even dogs proved
discouraging. “The PCBs are exhibiting a greater degree of toxicity than we
had anticipated,” reported the committee chairman. Fish tests were worse:
“Doses which were believed to be OK produced 100% kill.” The chairman
pressured the company's consultants for more Monsanto-friendly results, but
they replied: “We are very sorry that we can't paint a brighter picture at
the present time.”
The picture was not bright in Anniston, either. Company studies were
finding “ominous” concentrations of PCBs in streams and sediments. In
Choccolocco Creek, Monsanto had discovered deformed and lethargic
fish with off-the-charts PCB levels, including a blacktail shiner with 37,800
parts per million. The legal maximum was only 5 parts per million. “It is
apparent to us that there is a cause-and-effect relationship,” the consultants
At first, the committee members proposed reducing PCB releases to an
“absolute minimum.” But then they removed the word “absolute.” They saw no
benefit in a unilateral crackdown on Monsanto's PCBs when Monsanto's
customers were still dumping, too: “It was agreed that until the problems
of gross environmental contamination by our customers have been alleviated,
there is little object in going to expensive extremes in limiting discharges.”
And before Monsanto even began to phase out its best-selling PCBs, its top
customer intervened: General Electric, according to a memo by Papageorge,
insisted that it needed to keep buying PCBs to prevent power outages and
that the environmental threat was still “questionable.” Monsanto agreed to
slow down its plan, and kept making PCBs until 1977, although only for
closely monitored industrial uses.
And what, Kaley asks, is wrong with that? Corporations, after all, have
obligations to their shareholders, and the federal law banning the
manufacture of PCBs did not take effect until 1979. Monsanto's critics,
Kaley says, do not understand capitalism.
“Look, this was a good product,” Kaley said. “Did we try to save it as long
as we could? Absolutely. Was the writing on the wall when we stopped
producing it? Sure. But we did stop.”
The Reluctant Regulators
By May 1970, PCBs were a hot topic in the national media. Members of
Congress were calling for hearings. It seemed like only a matter of time
before regulators would notice the river of PCBs spewing out of the
Anniston plant. “This would shut us down depending on what plants or
animals they choose to find harmed,” the committee had warned.
So Monsanto decided to inform the Alabama Water Improvement Commission
(AWIC) on its own that PCBs were entering Snow Creek. And AWIC helped the
company keep its toxic secrets.
According to a company memo, AWIC's technical director, Joe Crockett, had
been “totally unaware of published information concerning Aroclors.” The
Monsanto executives assured him that everything was under control, and
Crockett, who is now deceased, said he appreciated their forthright
approach. “Give no statements or publications which would bring the
situation to the public's attention,” he told them, according to the memo.
“In summary . . . the full cooperation of the AWIC on a confidential basis
can be anticipated,” the memo concluded.
That summer, Crockett again came to Monsanto's rescue after the federal
Food and Drug Administration found PCB-tainted fish in Choccolocco Creek.
(There were no fish — or any other aquatic life — in Snow Creek.) Monsanto's
managers told him not to worry, saying they hoped to reduce PCB emissions
to 0.1 pounds per day by September.
“Crockett will try to handle the problem quietly without release of the
information to the public at this time,” announced a memo marked
CONFIDENTIAL: F.Y.I. AND DESTROY. Crockett explained that if word leaked
out, the state would be forced to ban fishing in Choccolocco Creek and a
popular lake downstream to ensure public safety.
Instead, the public kept fishing. But Monsanto's daily PCB losses, after
dipping from a high of 250 pounds to a low of 16 pounds, ballooned to 88
pounds — 880 times its goal.
“There is extreme reluctance to report even relatively low emission figures
because the information could be subpoenaed and used against us in legal
actions,” wrote an executive at Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis.
“Obviously, having to report these gross losses multiplies, enormously, our
problems because the figures would appear to indicate lack of control. . .
Is there anything more that can be done to get the losses down?”
There was. The problem had festered for 36 years, but the Anniston managers
finally began to act that fall, installing a sump, a carbon bed and a new
limestone pit to trap PCBs. And in 1971, facing as much as $1 billion in
additional pollution control costs in Anniston, Monsanto shifted all PCB
production to its plant in Illinois.
Before the year was over, Crockett helped out once more. The Justice
Department was considering a lawsuit against Monsanto over PCBs, and the
EPA wanted it to dredge Snow Creek. So Crockett set up a meeting between
Monsanto and an EPA regulator and helped argue the company's case. The
company's problems disappeared. One executive noted with relief in a memo
that a federal prosecutor had tried but failed to obtain Monsanto's
customer list: “I shudder to think how easily it would have been for someone . . .
to start spilling the beans as to whom we have been selling PCB products.”
Monsanto's luck with regulators held in 1983, when the federal Soil
Conservation Service found PCBs in Choccolocco Creek, but took no action.
In 1985, state authorities found PCB-tainted soils around Snow Creek, but a
dispute over cleanup details
lingered until a new attorney general named
Donald Siegelman took office in 1988. In a letter that April, Monsanto's
Anniston superintendent thanked Siegelman — who is now the state's
Democratic governor — for addressing the Alabama Chemical Association, and
meeting Monsanto's lobbyists for dinner. Then he got to the point: Monsanto
wanted to go forward with its own cleanup plan, dredging just a few hundred
yards of Snow Creek and its tributaries.
The company soon received approval to do just that.
A spokesman for Gov. Siegelman noted that in April 2000, he wrote to
President Bill Clinton about Anniston's PCBs, pointing out “the severity of
the situation” and requesting federal funding. But several state officials
acknowledged that a dozen years earlier, Alabama should have tested a much
larger area for PCBs before approving Monsanto's limited plan.
“It's hard to know how that one slipped through the cracks,” said Stephen
Cobb, the state's hazardous waste chief. “For some reason, no one
investigated the larger PCB problem.”
The larger problem finally burst into public view in 1993, after a local
angler caught deformed largemouth bass in Choccolocco Creek. After studies
again detected PCBs, Alabama issued the first advisories against eating
fish from the area — 27 years after Monsanto learned about those bluegills
sliding out of their skins.
By 1996, state officials and plaintiffs' attorneys were finding astronomical
PCB levels in the area: as high as 940 times the federal level of concern
in yard soils, 200 times that level in dust inside people's homes, 2,000 times
that level in Monsanto's drainage ditches. The PCB levels in the air were
also too high. And in blood tests, nearly one-third of the residents of the
working-class Sweet Valley and Cobbtown neighborhoods near the plant were
found to have elevated PCB levels. The communities were declared public
health hazards. Near Snow Creek, the state warned, “the increased risk of
cancer is estimated to be high.”
That's when Monsanto launched a program to buy and raze contaminated
properties, offering early sign-up bonuses and moving expenses as
incentives. “Monsanto intends to be a good neighbor — to those who wish to
leave, and to those who wish to stay,” its brochures explained.
Sally Franklin, a 64-year-old retired mechanic with a girlish voice, decided
to stay; she couldn't afford to buy a new home with the money Monsanto was
offering. One spring afternoon, she looked down from her PCB-contaminated
home overlooking what used to be Sweet Valley, now just an overgrown field
around an incongruous stop sign. So much for good neighbors, she grumbled.
“They must not think we know a black cow can give white milk,” she said.
The Dredged-Up Past
Anniston is not much of a model city anymore. The EPA officials who set up
an Anniston satellite office to deal with the PCB problem are now alarmed
about widespread lead poisoning as well. The Army is building an
incinerator here to burn 2,000 tons of deadly sarin and mustard gas. And
the Anniston Star has been questioning Monsanto's past mercury releases.
Duane Higgins runs the Chamber of Commerce here in Calhoun County —
motto: “Near Atlanta . . . Near Birmingham . . . Near Perfect” — and like
many civic leaders here, he's sick of headlines about pollution. “I'm tired of
paying for the sins of our fathers and grandfathers,” he said. “I don't see
the point of dredging this stuff up.”
He meant that literally, too. Local activists want Monsanto to dredge all
its PCBs out of Anniston's creeks and move all its buried PCBs to
hazardous-waste landfills. That could cost billions of dollars. But state
and EPA officials do not agree that such drastic measures are necessary.
They have no evidence that PCBs have escaped from the dumps since Monsanto
was required to cap them after a spill in 1996; they believe most of
Anniston's PCBs spread from the creeks during floods. And dredging projects
such as the one approved for the Hudson River remain scientifically as well
as politically controversial.
“There's a very pervasive problem in Anniston, but so far we haven't seen a
need for those kinds of dramatic actions,” said Wesley Hardegree, an EPA
corrective action specialist.
Part of the problem is that despite all the publicity, much remains unknown
about PCBs. Various animal studies have linked them to various cancers.
Other studies suggest possible ties to low IQs, birth defects, thyroid
problems, immune problems, diabetes. A federal research summary titled “Do
PCBs Affect Human Health?” concluded: “No smoking gun . . . but plenty of
bullets on the floor.”
But no one has found a link between PCBs and any cancer as definitive as
the link between, say, cigarettes and lung cancer. A recent GE-funded study —
conducted by the same toxicologist who originally discovered that PCBs
cause cancer in rats — found no link to cancer in humans. And some
independent scientists remain skeptical of any serious health effects from
real-world PCB exposure.
Today, Solutia is negotiating a final Anniston cleanup plan; EPA officials
say the company has been aggressive in pressing for lower standards but
generally cooperative. It employs 85 workers in Anniston, and donates
computers and science labs to area schools. Its brochures pledge to “insure
environmental safety and health for the community” and to hide nothing from
Anniston residents: “You have a right to know, and we have a responsibility
to keep you, our valued neighbor, informed.”
“We don't have horns coming out of our head,” said David Cain, the current
manager of the Solutia plant in Anniston. “We're not evil people.”
Still, the company's credibility problems linger in Anniston. A recent
company e-mail revealed that even the gifts of computers and labs were part
of a new damage-control strategy, along with donations to Siegelman's
inaugural fund: “The strategy calls for significantly increasing . . .
community outreach, contributions and political involvement while
aggressively seeking . . . to contain media issues regionally.” The
company's critics say little has changed. And they warn that Monsanto,
which no longer produces chemicals, is now promising the world that its
genetically engineered crops are safe for human consumption.
“For years, these guys said PCBs were safe, too,” said Mike Casey of the
Environmental Working Group, which has been compiling chemical industry
documents on the Web. “But there's obviously a corporate culture of
deceiving the public.”
On Jan. 7, the two sides will have their day in court. Kaley said his
company has nothing to hide.
“I'm really pretty proud of what we did,” Kaley said. “Was it perfect? No.
Could we be second-guessed? Sure. But I think we mostly did what any
company would do, even today.”