Deadly Secrets

Deadly Secrets

Deadly Secrets

By Devra Davis

[Devra Davis, Ph.D., M.P.H., is the author of the important new book, "The Secret
History of the War on Cancer
." She is the Director of the Center for
Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh (Pa.) Cancer Institute.
Visit her website at]

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

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

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

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

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

Surrounding this statement were more than fifty hand-lettered

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

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 slab.[1]

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

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 two[3] 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 years.[4] 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

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 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 Mexico.[5] They have declared their
intention to reopen this century- old facility.[6] 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 pollution.[7]

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 The Secret
History of the War on Cancer
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 acres of
ASARCO-contaminated land just north of the old smelter cemetery for a whopping
five million dollars, just after Wal-Mart was cited nationwide by the EPA for
failing to observe storm water rules in construction of its

[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

[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

[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

Copyright 1994-2007

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