By Bill Hewitt
March 25, 2002 12:00 PM

Until just a few years ago, Anniston, Ala., was a thriving little manufacturing town of 24,000 nestled beneath the Talladega Mountains, 60 miles east of Birmingham. Now parts of it resemble something closer to a wasteland. More than 100 homes and small businesses have been bulldozed or abandoned in the Sweet Valley and Cobb Town neighborhoods; whole tracts of land are sealed off behind chain-link fences, where there are sigas warning Danger; Bettye Bowie, 60, who works at a Head Start program, and her husband, Arthur, 63, a retired warehouse supervisor, lived in one Working-class neighborhood for 38 years until, fearing for their health, they fled their four-bedroom home last October. “That was our dream house,” says Bettye. “That is where our memories are.”

Thanks to one of the worst cases of pollution in the country’s history, memories are about all they have left. For more than 35 years the Monsanto plant in Anniston spewed PCBs, a toxic chemical banned from use in 1979 because of its probable links to cancer in humans, into local waterways and landfills. The effects of the PCBs and other waste products were startling. In 1966 a scientist hired by Monsanto immersed bluegills in a creek to test its toxicity levels; all died within four minutes, their skin sloughing off and blood gushing from their gills, the result, it was later determined, of muriatic acid. Says Jack Matson, a professor of environmental engineering at Penn State: “I have never seen anything as bad as Anniston in the U.S.”

On Feb. 22 a jury in nearby Gadsden essentially seconded that verdict, finding after a six-week civil trial that Monsanto can be held liable for the damage it has caused to some residents. Now some 3,500 plaintiffs are waiting to testify about their health problems and property damage, which could end up costing the chemical giant tens of millions of dollars. “The verdict is long overdue,” says David Baker, 50, a community activist who played a key role in getting residents together for the suit. “It was a vote of justice.” (The company said it was “extremely disappointed” by the verdict.)

The plaintiffs have yet to claim any medical effects from the pollution. That will come in another phase of their lawsuit. But many residents believe that their town has an abnormally high rate of cancer, miscarriages and liver, heart and other ailments that they say can be traced to Monsanto’s dumping. (To date there has not been a comprehensive study of the illness rates in residents.) Rev. Patricia Satcher, 54, a Pentecostal minister and distant relative of former Surgeon General David Satcher, points out that she suffers from a slew of problems—lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and seizures. “I was a well person until I was 42, and all of a sudden I went down like ‘boom,’ ” says Satcher, a lifelong resident of Anniston who is not party to the current suit. “I take pain pills to get up, I take pain pills to go to bed.” Meanwhile, Bettye Bowie points out that she is a breast-cancer survivor, while Arthur was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year. “It makes me angry, disgusted, devastated,” says Arthur. “We all have been contaminated.”

For activist Baker, exhibit A is his younger brother Terry, who would be 48 today. He recalls that growing up in Anniston he and Terry routinely played in the drainage ditches that carried runoff from the nearby Monsanto plant. “We used to throw rocks, shoot bows and arrows and tie a tire from a tree and cross over the water,” says Baker, who worked as a labor organizer in New York City before returning home to Anniston in 1993. “The ditches was all we had to play in.” Baker says Terry died in 1971 at age 17, suffering from a striking array of illnesses in one so young: a brain tumor, lung cancer and hardening of the arteries.

“He was just so sick,” says Baker. “The doctors couldn’t understand what would cause all this sickness.” Though he has no proof, Baker blames his brother’s death on PCBs. “Terry is definitely a reason I got involved,” says Baker of his crusade, which included organizing people into plaintiff groups. “Once it started to sink in what some of this stuff is doing to people, it made me angry.”

For decades folks in Anniston had known that all was not right in their town. Reverend Satcher recalls the strange sights she saw while growing up near the Monsanto plant. “One day the waters [of a nearby creek] would be purple, one day they would be red, another day yellow, then green,” she says. “When we were kids we were walking in there barefooted.” And there was no mistaking it when the breeze blew the wrong way. “Sometimes you couldn’t go outside because of the smell,” she says. “It was so horrible you couldn’t stand it.”

Except that they did. Mostly poor, the residents didn’t know what was being dumped into their surroundings, much less the potential risks. They unknowingly continued to eat crops grown in the contaminated soil of their back-yards. The company, however, cannot claim such ignorance. In 1935 Monsanto bought the Anniston plant, which six years earlier had gotten into the business of manufacturing PCBs, short for polychlorinated biphenyls. When first introduced, the man-made PCBs were rightly hailed as a boon to safety: Nearly impossible to set on fire, they were perfect for use as insulation in electrical equipment. But their risks became apparent quickly enough. It emerged at the trial that as far back as 1938, Monsanto had received a report from Dr. Cecil K. Drinkard, a professor of physiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, showing that PCBs were toxic to animals. In 1944 the company published safety guidelines for workers who handled the chemicals. For example, each employee exposed to PCBs was to have two lockers on the job—one for work clothes, one for streetwear—to prevent contamination. And employees had to take a supervised shower after every shift. Finally, in 1979 the U.S. government banned the manufacture of the chemical on the grounds that it is a “probable” cancer-causing agent in humans.

Monsanto had already stopped making PCBs at the Anniston plant in 1971. But even in the years afterward, the company never told residents it had dumped its untreated wastes into streams and into two landfills. At the trial Penn State’s Jack Matson, who had once worked for Monsanto but who was now testifying as an expert witness for the plaintiffs, expressed amazement at the company’s carelessness. Back in 1935, he said, Monsanto could have installed a simple filtration device called an oil-water separator that would have largely solved the problem for $3,000. “They were incredibly negligent in their operation,” says Matson.

It is unclear how much of the PCBs were released into the local environment. In his testimony Matson estimated that 1.2 million lbs. were put into waterways and another 10 million lbs. into one of two landfills on nearby Cold Water Mountain. How could this have happened? “You’re asking me to comment on something over 30 years ago,” says John Hunter, the chairman and CEO of Solutia Inc., the Monsanto spinoff that now runs the plant. “I-can’t speculate on what was going on there.”

But to residents the motives seem perfectly clear. PCBs made Monsanto an estimated $8 million in profit in 1969. In a town where the per capita income is $11,371, locals believe Monsanto was confident that it would never have to answer to anybody. “[They thought,] ‘The suckers will never find out,’ ” says Bettye Bowie. ” ‘Kill them off. Let them inhale the fumes, eat the poisoned food.’ ” That sort of cynicism is understandable, given some of the documents that came to light during the trial. The minutes of a 1969 company meeting cite a need to “permit continued sales and profits” and “protect [the] image of…[the] Corporation.”

Despite evidence of pollution, the federal government and Alabama state regulators seemed in no hurry to address the problem. That began to change in 1993, when a fisherman reeled in a badly deformed largemouth bass from Choccolocco Creek; finally the issue became public. When testing began, the results were unsettling. For humans, the average normal level of PCBs in the blood is less than 2 parts per billion. In a 2000 survey of nearly 3,000 people in Anniston, more than a third were found to have greater than 10 ppb, and 41 registered more than 100 ppb. “I don’t know of any places that have higher levels of PCB contamination,” says Dr. Howard Frumkin, of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta.

In its defense, Monsanto tried to argue that PCBs pose very little if any demonstrable threat to humans. Experts for the plaintiffs pointed to at least 15 studies showing that PCBs can be linked to cancer. Still, in contrast to cigarette smoke and asbestos, whose cancer-causing properties are well-established, it is true that the precise biological mechanism by which PCBs could make people sick has not been demonstrated—so far. But as Emory’s Dr. Frumkin points out, it would be unwise to assume the best. “Absence of proof isn’t proof of absence,” he says. “It just means you don’t have the proof yet.”

On its own, Monsanto has already set aside more than $180 million to clean up Anniston. But residents believe that figure is far too low. They want the company to remove all the PCBs from the two landfills on Cold Water Mountain. (The company maintains that the sites are perfectly safe, but the Environmental Protection Agency says it is not certain whether PCBs are continuing to escape into the environment. For reasons that are not clear, the level of PCBs in the air around Anniston continues to be unexpectedly high.) Despite the prospect of damage awards, some people, like Cassandra Roberts, 44, resent that their neighborhoods will never be the same. “It was a community that was poor, but it was a community,” says Roberts, who still worships in Sweet Valley but has moved away. “It was home.” Yet many others are determined to stay. In one promising sign, Reverend Satcher says she will use her share of any judgment against Monsanto to build a church in town—hoping, perhaps, that even a little hallowed ground will help turn back the blight from below.

Bill Hewitt

Linda Trischitta and Siobhan Morrissey in Anniston