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Original Essays

Deadly Secrets

by Devra Davis
  1. The Secret History of the War on Cancer
    $19.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[G]rim but fascinating reading....Davis proposes a kind of truth-and-reconciliation approach to get industry and public-health experts mutually involved. But she notes that, unfortunately, it's simply not happening fast enough....One can hope, however, that Davis's book will assure that proper attention is paid." Kirkus Reviews

    "Davis writes with passion, driven by the conviction that premature deaths among her family members resulted from exposure to industrial toxins....Davis presents a powerful call to action; recommended." Library Journal

  2. When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution
    $6.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "This is an enlightening, engrossing read...which should be on the shelf of anyone who cares about the environment and wants to learn more about policy, health and politics; Davis weaves all of these together with grace." Publishers Weekly

    "A balanced treatment of the personal, scientific, and political elements of environmental research." Booklist

Young children tell secrets, many of which turn out to be fabulously untrue. But what passes as child's play can turn deadly when adults agree to keep matters of life and death under wraps.

Few have ever heard of Reveilletown, Louisiana. In 1987 30 families, in what was then a poor black community next to Georgia Gulf's flagship plant, sued the company alleging that their land was packed with hidden toxic contamination. The company responded by turning the claims into secrets, buying up the town, paying the residents for their homes, leveling the entire neighborhood, and requiring that no information on what had happened to the health of the people would ever become public. Some of the local environmental and community advocates protested that this solution removed the people but did not remove the hazards. Silence was bought and research stopped.

But was there any risk to people's health? Nobody knows and nobody is asking. A few years later, the town of Mossville also was wiped off the map. Living downstream of several major chemical facilities, folks in the area got used to what was called "sheltering in place." Della Sullivan who grew up in the town remembers, "A big boom would go off, rattling the house and everything in it. Sometimes windows would crack. Running out in the middle of the night in this swamp can be scary, especially for little kids who grow up looking out for swamp monsters."

I asked her, "Come on now, did you really believe in swamp monsters?"

With a deadpan look, she answered, "Of course there are swamp monsters. What do you think a water moccasin or an alligator really is? We grew up knowing things to stay away from. Nobody in their right mind goes into a swamp at night in their bedclothes unless they be scared out of their head."

Swamp monsters were not the only things in the area that didn't leave clear tracks. The residents of Mossville shut their doors and windows to smoke and fumes, but couldn't shut their bodies from pollution that entered their water and food. In 2005, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that older persons from the area had more than four times the amount of dioxin in their blood of their peers in the rest of the country.

All that was left of Mossville when I visited two years before Katrina leveled the region was a solitary white painted board with a slogan painted in black:

In memory of workers and citizens who have paid with their lives for a toxic environment. Our fight for a clean environment is for you, our families and our future.

Surrounding this statement were more than fifty hand-lettered names. As we walked along what was left of Mossville, we found the remains of small cement-block foundations. Tall grasses claimed the space of what had once been a vibrant hunting and fishing community.

In Mossville, the lucky ones who were still alive collected money from Conoco and Condea-Vista before they left town. But there was a catch, as one investigator anonymously confided. Everything became a secret. "There was one clause in all the agreements that no matter what pollution, no matter what illness ever came up in the future, from no matter what chemical, no matter what source of what chemical, they were no longer going to be allowed to sue the chemical companies if they got sick later on."

I haven't been back to the area since the big hurricanes hit — first Katrina, then Rita. In the ocean, as hurricanes build and move across the surface, a train of lee waves is produced. Behind them, a large zone of upwelled water rises that sweeps over whatever it finds, until it runs out of steam. Jerome Longo, head of the National Wildlife Federation, comes from Mossville. He told me that a wall of water more than twenty feet high swept through what was left of the small town. When it receded, it took along sludge and waste of years, spreading the toxic residues more broadly than before.

Today nothing at all is left of the former failed resort town of Times Beach, Missouri, which also found its history turned into a secret. When you drive there, as I did during a recent visit to St. Louis early in 2007, you find a small National Park museum, oddly named for Route 66 — a road that never went there. A small wooden building sits in the middle of miles of grass-covered mounds, from which the occasional solitary white plastic well-head pops up. The only signs of former human habitation are the odd geranium or petunia that managed to regrow, despite the removal and incineration of millions of tons of topsoil from the area.

In 1980, as part of a team for the Environmental Law Institute, I wrote a report for the Congressional Research Service documenting the extensive spreading of dioxin-laced wastes throughout the Times Beach area. In several years in the 1970s, a waste oil hauler, Russell Bliss, had dribbled toxic oil throughout the region, poisoning horses, dogs, and leaving some children ill. The good and honest park ranger that hosts the museum was just a child when all this happened. She doesn't know that the written history of Times Beach is a lie. A photo I took of the record in that small museum says that the people of Times Beach only learned that their homes were unliveable in 1982, when a major river flood forced them to evacuate. Imagine suddenly being forced to leave your home as flood waters peaked and never being allowed back. Memories don't end, but the photos and the relics of lives became entombed in toxic muck.

In fact, the massive contamination of Times Beach had not been a secret to the officials of the federal government who had my report from 1980 and those of many others. Yet the citizens of the region never heard of our report. They were forced to abandon their homes after the 1982 deluge spread toxic muck throughout the area.

Another region of the southern United States haunted by poisonous secrets is that of El Paso, Texas, home of the ASARCO lead smelter. In his 1975 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Philip Landrigan detailed the toxic impact of lead residues on local children that forced the examination of every other smelter in the country. His work for the Centers for Disease Control showed that levels of lead that were insufficient to immediately sicken children permanently dulled their brains and nervous systems.

ASARCO's answer to this crisis was straightforward. Smeltertown families were booted out of their homes. When I visited the area in 2004, only the dead remained. The small local cemetery of marked and nameless graves was covered with blackened, windswept sand. Longer stones or slabs of poured concrete presumably indicate adults, and smaller ones outline those who died as children. The name and short life of Guadaloupe Carmona, 1925–1927, are handwritten on a poured slab1.

In the Environmental Law Institute's report for the Library of Congress in 1980, we described El Paso, along with Times Beach, as well-established cases of mostly historic interest, about which there was little left to learn. We knew that the lawsuit against the company had been settled and that the land surrounding the smelter had been bought by ASARCO for less than half a million dollars. The purchase was made on the condition that all the residents were to be removed so that their former home sites could be used to store acid tanks and railroad cars2.

But when I visited the region three years ago, I learned that some environmental solutions, unlike love, are not forever. El Paso's problems are not nearly as well resolved as I had believed. In fact the story has taken a strange turn. In May 1992, ASARCO set up two3 CONTOP (continuous top-feed oxygen process) furnaces. These hot-burning ovens never slept. All day every day, they burned tons of toxic wastes at 90 percent efficiency. This meant that just 10 percent of what they tried to burn ended up intact. Still, 10 percent of hundreds of thousands of tons of wastes fired over several years left enough metal poisons in the region that the furnaces were put out of business by the U.S. Department of Justice after operating just seven years4. Although many nearby businesses were long shut down, the smelter next to Smeltertown remained, along with the buildings supporting the U.S. Mexico dam and canal system.

A secret government memo released in 2006 from the EPA, written during the Clinton years, showed that so long as the furnaces were running, the company told the world it was recycling materials. Think back to the waste oil that Russell Bliss distributed or took to be burned in mills in Missouri. If this waste is laced with dioxin or heavy metals, then when it gets burned, thousands of tons of toxic agents get finely spewed back into the air over large regions. Recycling thus becomes a neat redistribution system, taking measurable solid wastes and turning them into immeasurable, ultrafine air pollutants.

Pollutants do not need passports. The residents of El Paso and Juarez know this, because they are joined by more than a century's worth of leaden soils and plumes that have crossed back and forth over the U.S.-Mexican border and left many zones uninhabitable. Commerce, of course, crosses borders as well. In 1999 ASARCO was bought for more than $1 billion and today is a completely owned subsidiary of Grupo Mexico5. They have declared their intention to reopen this century-old facility6. What happened to the hundreds of millions of dollars that ASARCO had set aside to pay for cleaning up El Paso? In a stunningly cynical move, Grupo Mexico was granted permission by the U.S. government to use that money to pay down corporate debt. Not a penny has been spent to remedy the damage from this longstanding pollution7.

At this time, ASARCO faces bankruptcy because of its responsibilities to clean up dozens of Superfund sites. Of an estimated $2 billion in cleanup costs for old ASARCO areas throughout the United States alone, the firm has set aside less than $100 million. The Steelworkers Union in Dallas used the Freedom of Information Act to unearth an EPA memo warning that any sampling of metals in El Paso could show that the smelter had burned illegal wastes for years. Many locals suspect the plans to reopen the rusted old smelter are just a ploy to keep the plant from being declared a Superfund site. If the company declares its intent to operate, it can't be prosecuted for having abandoned the area.

The signing and sealing of secrecy agreements about contaminated environments — just like those about defective cars or planes — is not a matter of child's play. It's perfectly legal and perfectly bad to allow health and safety information to be kept secret. Such secrets also handicap the ability of science to evaluate hazards. We are left with a policy that perversely allows that you can't ask about what someone doesn't want you to know.

As you open the pages of this book and join me at our web site, you will find long forgotten secrets exposed. You will also find a map that ensures that those of us who want the future of cancer to be different from the past, understand that keeping secrets about the things that cause the disease endangers all of us.


1 Residents of Smeltertown moved upstream two miles to Bueno Vista across from Anapra, New Mexico, and old Anapra, Mexico. In the 1980s New Mexico labeled Anapra, New Mexico, the most lead-contaminated spot in New Mexico and blamed it on the smelter. Since then three generations have grown up in Anapra, and the generations are suffering increasing horrific health problems. Word of mouth accounts are common about babies born without organs, born without a brain, fused-skulls at birth are common and doctors have privately told women it comes from drinking the city water when pregnant. The residents of Anapra have formed a community group and are fighting to get honest assessment of the extent of contamination from the smelter. Meanwhile, New Mexico, Mexico, and Texas continue to turn Anapra into the regional dumping ground — siting three sewage treatment plants, a regional dump, the electric generating plant, a quarry and other toxic developments at this residentially-zoned neighborhood (platted in the early 1900s).

2 Wal-Mart bought several hundred acreas of ASARCO-contaminated land just north of the old smelter cemetery for a whopping five million dollars, just after Wal-Mart was cited millions nationwide by the EPA for failing to observe storm water rules in construction of its properties.

3 The two largest CON0TOPs in the world, designed to smelt toxic waste (shredded automobiles, sludges) for "energy recovery" to provide additional heat for the concurrent melting of the ore concentrates. But ASARCO never got permission to smelt toxic waste — they were supposed to recover metals from all materials that they received.

4 The EPA began testing and residential cleanups in the early 2000s. ASARCO had shut down in 1999, claiming a historic low in copper prices. It wasn't until 2006 that the Federal Department. of Justice released an EPA secret memo from 1998, showing the fake recycling, the secret incineration of toxic waste for profit that ASARCO's ConTop furnaces had conducted for nearly a decade. The government had used ASARCO to dispose of Rocky Mt. Arsenal material (oil bearing materials, chemical weapon quench waters).

5 Carlyle Group is an owner of Grupo Mexico.

6 We believe that this may actually be a sham-intent, and that the fight is over ownership of the carbon credits from the Air permit 20345.

7 We also believe that the Asarco bankruptcy is a test-case for world-wide industrial interests to show how environmental liabilities can be shed — passed onto the people who actually suffered the damages in the first place.

÷ ÷ ÷

Devra Davis, Ph.D., M.P.H., is the Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. She was appointed by President Clinton to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board in 1994 and also served as Scholar in Residence at the National Academy of Science. She lives in Pittsburgh. Visit her website at spacer

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