Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers



New York Times
5 May 2003

Toxic Water Numbers Days of a Trailer Park

PLAQUEMINE, La., May 1 — Before the water went bad, most people in the trailer park never thought of their aluminum-skinned houses as a mobile home, only home. Hard against the rows of sugar cane, not far from the big chemical plants that light up the evening sky, the trailers in the Myrtle Grove park were dented but decent, and the tires rotted in the grass.

Now, staying in the tree-shaded neighborhood just outside the river city of Plaquemine is unthinkable. There is poison in the well water that they used to drink, a chemical used to make plastic called vinyl chloride. The state knew this years ago, but residents were not told. They wonder what it will do to them someday, and what it has done to them already.

In the late afternoon, the smell of real food — smothered steak and stewed turkey necks — drifts across the community of about 50 homes, and women lean against their cars to talk about the bad water with a kind of gauzy anger and an unspecific fear.

"Me, and Tammy, and Michelle, we all had miscarriages," Faye Robertson said, pointing down the road of trailers at the homes of her neighbors and friends. Women who live here say that as many as 13 pregnancies ended in miscarriage in just the last few years, and say that their children burned and itched from bath water and wading pools.

"June 30, 2001. Shermicia," Ms. Robertson said of the date she miscarried the baby, and the name she had picked out. She was pregnant when she found out, from tests on the wells, that the water was tainted, and read — with a chill — a pamphlet from health workers warning of possible threats from vinyl chloride to unborn children.

"And I thought, `I hope I don't lose my baby,' " she said.

Health experts warned them that exposure to the colorless chemical, which is used to make plastic pipes, furniture and upholstery, could cause liver cancer, nerve damage, circulatory problems and skin lesions, but because incidents of drinking or bathing in such contaminated water are so rare, scientists are unsure about just how toxic it is.

Animal testing showed that long-term exposure could cause reproductive problems, including miscarriage.

Now, the double row of mobile homes is marked here and there by a bare brown patch of dirt, as the tow trucks come in and pull away the trailers, one by one. In less than two months, the deadline set by the landlord, they will all be gone.

A community will cease to exist.

"But it's too late," said Lea James, who lives here. "What effect will it have?" she wondered, since she carries the residue of the chemical with her to a new home.

The poisoning of the aquifer near Plaquemine (pronounced PLACK-uh-mun), has resulted in a criminal investigation by state and federal authorities. The state has impaneled a grand jury in Iberville Parish, which includes Myrtle Grove, and appointed a special prosecutor.

"This is the first time ever there has been a grand jury put together on environmental issues in the state of Louisiana," said Marylee M. Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, a watchdog organization. "The local people are really afraid."

They are also angry. For years, state inspectors knew of the contamination, and never said a word.

For at least five years, 1997 to 2001, wells at the Myrtle Grove Trailer Park off Bayou Jacob Road poured polluted water into the saucepans, wading pools and water glasses of some 300 residents here. The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals first detected the contamination in 1997 but, through what state officials called "human error," failed to tell people here about it.

The state health agency, because of its self-described bureaucratic foul-up, also failed to tell the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Residents here say the vinyl chloride probably existed for years before it was detected in the Upper Plaquemine Aquifer in 1997.

People here call it "Dow water" and believe that the Dow chemical plant nearby is responsible for the contamination.

Dow officials say that their plant is not the source of the pollution at Myrtle Grove and that their scientists are working in the community to pinpoint the source.

The trailer park's residents are suing the Department of Health and Hospitals, the park's owner, A. Wilberts Sons, and Dow, which manufactures vinyl chloride in the plant about two miles away. They worry about the potential damage to their bodies but seem just as angry about being run off from their homes.

It is, despite the temporary nature of their dwellings, a real home, said Tammy Green, who works as a home-care provider in the parish. She is 37 and has lived here 19 years, raising two children with her husband, Lloyd. Newly painted iron barbecue grills sit outside. A big shade tree cools the yard in the summer, and in this part of the world, summer is almost all the time.

Once, before the water scared them, there would have been a baby in a wading pool in almost every yard, and people washing their cars in the driveways. "And we just all went on with life, cooking with it, not knowing," Mrs. Green said.

On Father's Day, three years ago, she had a miscarriage, but no one had told them yet about the threat.

When she and the other women here learned about the vinyl chloride, she said, they began to count the number of miscarriages in recent years. "Thirteen," she said. "That many women on one street? Something is wrong."

"I know I'll never try again," she said of her pregnancy. "I'll never do that again."

Residents here laugh at the notion, put forth by some experts, that the vinyl chloride does not emanate from a chemical plant.

"It appears to be originating from the area where Dow has its production facilities," said Wilma Subra, a chemist and consultant to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. "They produce vinyl chloride. They sell it."

After a two-year investigation, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is reluctant to conclude that the contamination emanates from Dow, said Tim Knight, the state environmental technology administrator. But when asked if the company was the prime suspect, he said yes.

Tests in the aquifer underneath the plant itself showed no vinyl chloride, said Rebecca Bentley, a spokeswoman for Dow in Louisiana.

Also, Dow's tests show that water in the aquifer flows primarily to the west, not toward the trailer park, which is southwest of the plant.

The Environmental Protection Agency's tests, however, showed that the aquifer, 190 feet below the surface, flows in a south to southwest direction from the plant, which would carry it under the trailer park.

One agency expert, James T. Wilson, said he did not believe the vinyl chloride was coming from the Dow plant and said an accidental release into the air would evaporate. Instead, he believes that pollution here is from an old spill of another chemical that broke down into vinyl chloride.

But Ms. Subra said a seepage into the soil or the aquifer would not evaporate and would collect in the groundwater.

"We believe it's pure product," said Ms. Orr of the vinyl chloride in the water, and not the result of a chemical breakdown.

Dow has helped in the investigation to find the source by paying for test wells, Ms. Bentley said.

"We would agree that it's unfortunate that these people's lives have been disrupted," she said. "We are working to be part of the solution."

Residents of Myrtle Grove say the state is afraid to pursue Dow, which employs 3,000 people in its plant here. The cars in most of the driveways here are paid for, directly or indirectly, by Dow paychecks. Home notes depend on the plant.

In Myrtle Grove, only the empty spaces hint that there is anything wrong.

Children still wheel their bicycles up Kuneman Road, as their mothers wonder how they can afford to relocate on paychecks that are already spoken for by utility companies and creditors. Most residents work blue-collar jobs, installing insulation, working in the sugar-cane business or as nurse's aides and home-care workers. Many people here have refused to pay rent, blaming the landowner, partly, for their predicament.

The landlord, who is closing the park because of skyrocketing insurance rates caused by the pollution, has given them $2,000 to relocate. "They are just victims like the other folks," said Rafael Bermudez, a spokesman for A. Wilberts Sons. "They've lost their trailer park. It was their land that was contaminated."

"They would like to find out themselves," he said of the source.

People, despite the ominous nature of their eviction, say they will stay as long as they can, drinking from water lines that now bring safe city water into their not really mobile homes.

Everyone seems to drift outside as the afternoon cools, as the wind blows in off the cane fields. Grandmothers tend small children, and about 3 p.m. a big yellow bus sends a throng of them running for the trailers that are pocked and warped but, here and there, freshly painted. Porches have been built on some.

"It was a nice place," said Joyce Barrett, who has already left.





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