"Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town" By Ellen Griffith Spears

Feb 16, 2016

“Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town”

Author: Ellen Griffith Spears        

Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press

Pages: 464

Price: $39.95 (Hardback); $27.95 (Paper)

“Baptized in PCBs” is a big, ambitious, important, book, the result of ten years of research, and has already received the Arthur J. Viseltear Prize for outstanding contribution to the history of public health and the Reed Environmental Writing Award given by the Southern Environmental Center. Originally a doctoral dissertation at Emory University, the book contains 303 dense pages of text and 137 pages of notes and bibliography. The study is just out in paperback. A serious book, it is smoothly written and, although you will not see many reading it at the beach this summer, maybe more people should.

Spears weaves together several stories that take place in Anniston, Alabama but which have surely unfolded in many other American towns as well.

Founded in 1872, Anniston was to be a model New South town. Natural beauty, natural resources and an available labor force made it perfect for industry. From 1929 on, the Swann Chemical Company, later acquired by Monsanto, manufactured PCBs— polychlorinated biphenyls, 209 varieties—in huge quantities. By 1937 the company knew these chemicals were dangerous, but manufacturing continued until 1979, by which time many tons of toxic waste had been dumped, contaminating water, soil and air, giving Anniston the title of Toxic Town and, ironically, All-American town, simultaneously. One area registered 200,000 ppm when 500 was considered unacceptable.

Spears writes that, with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management useless and an underfunded EPA nearly so, lawsuits were brought and in 2002 finally concluded, with Monsanto found liable for “wantonness, negligence and outrage”—defined in law as “conduct beyond all possible bounds of decency…atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society.” The company was fined 600 million dollars, plus $100 million for clean-up. Of the $600 million, the lawyers got $234 million, with the rest shared among thousands of plaintiffs.

Spears describes in detail Monsanto’s slow retreat. First: deny everything. Stress the local payroll involved. Stress jobs. (The need for jobs has led to the poisoning of the South in a thousand places.) Blame careless workers. Dispute the validity of any unpleasant scientific findings.

Have your tame scientists declare the matter is uncertain, needs a lot more research. Invent Advisory Panels. Cultivate the press, especially the local paper. Lobby elected state and federal officials.

Enlarge your in-house PR division and, at the last ditch, hire a new kind of PR outfit, specialists in “risk communication” who “manage dissent” and can “shape a response that meets corporate needs.”

Spears writes with feeling of corporate hypocrisy and chicanery but even more so of the suffering of workers and residents in Anniston, who were often never informed of the danger they were in.

The racial dimension to this story concerns who was most affected.

At the plant, black workers had the dirtiest, riskiest jobs. West Anniston, the black section of town, was closest to the plant and the dump sites. Property values, never high, got lower.

Families breathing the air were at risk. Growing vegetables and eating them was dangerous, and doing the gardening, handling the soil, even worse. Fish were toxic, killed off and often deformed. Monsanto quietly bought the hogs the residents were raising for meat, and disposed of them.

In the aftermath of the settlement, there was clean-up—but never enough.

Whole neighborhoods, houses, stores and churches were bulldozed, destroying a venerable, close-knit community. It would be impossible to put a price tag on this.

As if Anniston hadn’t suffered enough, there were also huge, potentially unstable stockpiles of nerve gas and other chemical weapons at the Army Depot. Incineration was proposed, with dissenters pushing for a chemical neutralization or some other remedy. Activists protesting incineration fought here to a draw: the chemicals were burned, but the facility was then dismantled so no more were brought there for disposal.

In one poignant scene, Spears tells how Sweet Valley resident Cassandra Roberts shows her the now-dirt-filled baptismal pool, once fed by Snow Creek, where she was in fact baptized in water laden with PCBs.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.