When I was a kid in the early 1970s there was a friend of the family who would stop by from time to time – usually with a bucket of flounder he had just caught. He made an excellent beer batter and we’d have a fish fry dinner together. His name was Floyd and he was a simple salt of the earth type man who worked maintenance at the local chemical plant: cutting the grass, mopping the floors, painting, and shoveling snow.
He used to tell stories about steel drums full of who-knows-what being buried by the thousands on the company grounds. It had been going on since the plant first opened in the 1950s. Years later toxins were discovered in tainted wells after clusters of rare cancers started killing kids out on the edge of town. Trichloroethylene. Epichlorohydrin. Benzidine. Styrene-acrylonitrile. Naphthalene.
Books were written about the case after the fact. It turns out that the authorities were aware of the situation long before the worst consequences emerged – back when I was a kid and Floyd brought us fish. The problem had been contained and managed for decades. The chemical plant was the largest employer and the biggest tax payer in the area. The official party line for years was, “There is no problem.” There simply was no political will to do anything about a situation that hadn’t yet ripened. News of toxic water and dying children wasn’t good for a town that was built on tourism and new housing developments. A city well was capped and a new one was drilled farther away from the plant. Individual homes with compromised private wells were purchased by the chemical company and nondisclosure documents were signed. It was all under control.
Then the chemical plant shut down. Mergers and acquisitions. Industry restructuring. That’s when it became a real problem. No more employment. No more tax base. Lots of toxins in an ever growing underground plume. A new generation of local officials where left holding the bag. They didn’t want to talk about poisoned water and diseased children any more than the last batch. It made the town look bad… And what exactly could they do about it?
Cut to my college years in an entirely different town in the early 1990s. I was an avid garage sale shopper in those days looking to furnish an apartment on a tight budget. I’d make the rounds to the usual suburban cul-de-sacs each weekend all summer long. Dishes here. A coffee table there. A bed frame. But at a certain point I got a peculiar vibe from one house I had gone to a few weekends in a row. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something didn’t feel right. It eventually occurred to me that it was June and July and there were no kids around in a neighborhood full of young families. I asked around. “Oh, the kids are in Pennsylvania with grandma and grandpa. They love running around in the country chasing frogs and swimming in the lake. And it gives me and the Mrs. a little time to ourselves.” Wink wink.
A few years back here in San Francisco I was at a party at a friend’s house and met a young guy who coincidentally grew up in the same part of the world that I had. His dad had been a chemical engineer and he spent his summers in Pennsylvania with his grandparents until his folks moved to Delaware. I was intrigued and asked a few questions about the particulars. The guy got cagey but discretely confirmed my assumptions. He discovered years later that the water at their old house had been contaminated. His dad had suspicions and tested it on the sly without a paper trail. What were his options?
Nationally publicized events like those at Love Canal in upstate New York had demonstrated that officials were not only incapable of helping, but they actively worked to discredit affected families. “This is just a group of hysterical housewives.” The chemical companies had expensive lawyers and dragged things out for decades with plausible deniability. “There’s no scientific way to connect the chemicals in your water with our company. And there’s no definitive way to connect those chemicals to your child’s leukemia.” Going to the media – in those days TV news and newspapers – made you famous for being screwed, but did nothing to improve your situation. In fact, that kind of publicity turned your neighbors in town against you for pulling them down with you. So there you are drinking bottled water and worrying if the poison was seeping in through your skin as you showered. Your house had no value and couldn’t be sold or rented. And you were persona non grata.
The guy’s dad did the only thing that made any sense to him. He kept this information to himself – didn’t even tell his wife until they were long gone. “I just got a job offer in Delaware, Honey. Our next place will be even nicer.” He sent the kids away, quietly sold the house before there was any news or documented evidence of the contamination, and moved out of state before the shit hit the fan.
Was this moral? Ethical? Absolutely not. Was it legal? Technically… that’s something for the political process and the courts to decide. They tend not to be kind to the little guy. Was it the right thing for this individual to do at the time? Hmmmmmmmm. The system works when everyone up and down the food chain takes responsibility and does the right thing. In the absence of that dynamic it’s every man for himself. Caveat emptor.