by Lucia Graves and Jordan Howard at Huffington Post
WASHINGTON — David Bouie, a 64-year-old resident of Crossett, Ark., says something isn’t right on Penn Road. In the 15 homes on his street, 11 people have recently died of cancer. The casualties include George Parker and his wife, Ollie Parker, as well as Bobbie Sue Gibbs and her neighbor Tom Perkins, both of whom passed away with multiple cancers. Dolores Wimberly, a former neighborhood resident, says her daughter Laetitia, a nonsmoker, died of lung cancer at 43; and Penn Road resident Norma Thompson says her husband died of lung cancer, while she continues to have breathing problems, often relying on a respirator.
“Whenever we take a trip out of town, our respiratory system seems to get better,” said David Bouie’s wife, Barbara, who has spent her entire life in Crossett, the largest city in Ashley County. “I don’t have trouble breathing, or use my eye drops, or anything. But when we come home, it starts all over again — the headache, everything.”
A provocative new video by political filmmakers Brave New Films says that Crossett residents who suffer from poor air quality and ambient carcinogens are victims of pollution emitted by a Koch Industries-owned paper manufacturer, Georgia-Pacific. The plant is located directly upstream from the channel behind Penn Road. “Whatever’s in (the water) is killing these trees,” says David Bouie in the video. “You can see the steam coming from the stuff. It gets up in the air, and it flows over where our property is.”
Natalie Kottke, co-producer of “Koch Brothers Exposed,” said the people she interviewed in Crossett had all worked for Georgia-Pacific in some capacity.
“A lot of their diseases and suffering came later in life, after they retired,” she told HuffPost in an interview. “They feel very betrayed by a company that they invested their whole lives in.” Many of them bought property in Crossett, expecting to retire there and have their grandchildren come visit, only to find their homes may have made the children sick.
“A lot of them are just realizing the connection,” said Kottke.
THE SOURCE OF THEIR LIVELIHOODS
The city of Crossett, a largely poor, minority neighborhood, has one of the highest rates of exposure to cancer-causing toxins in the nation. USA Today reports that the Alpha Alternative School District in Crossett ranks in the top percentile nationally for exposure to probable human carcinogens, with the Georgia-Pacific plant listed as the polluter most responsible for the toxins.
The film says that many residents have been reluctant to speak out about the situation, in part because Georgia-Pacific, if the source of their ailments, is also the source of their livelihoods. Of the roughly 6,000 residents of Crossett, a full 2,200 work for the Koch Industries-owned subsidiary. And with the per capita income at just $18,288 and 16.8 percent of the population living below the poverty line, most residents desperately need the money.
“It’s not like they can go and hire lawyers or get people to come out there and do studies,” said Melissa Jarrell, the environmental criminologist and Texas A&M professor featured in the video. “And if they are able to do that and eventually convince somebody to come out there and study their community … unfortunately what we often find is these studies are inconclusive because they can’t link a given cancer to a pollution. That’s been the hardest part about environmental crimes and environmental victims: It’s just hard to find that link.”
“Everyone in the city calls it ‘the crud,’” said David Bouie in an interview with The Huffington Post. “When you mention ‘the crud,’ everybody knows it’s the crud that’s coming from the mill that causes people to get sick.”
Behind closed doors, Crossett doctors will acknowledge their patients are suffering adverse consequences from air and water pollution, David Bouie told HuffPost. But when Bouie asked them to put that in writing, the doctors refused.
In an industry-run town, Kottke explained, people are ostracized for speaking out. They are watched and followed. “Georgia-Pacific security will stroll down the street — something I saw first hand when I was there,” said Kottke. Of the silencing effect she added, “I think it’s fear, that’s what I gathered. When I was behind closed doors, it was pretty profound how open they were. It’s at a point where they’re ready to talk.”
REGULATING THE REGULATORS
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and Georgia Pacific say that all water quality standards are being met, but residents and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which assisted Brave New Films in making the film, aren’t convinced.
Cheryl Slavant, president of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, has claimed that Georgia-Pacific is dumping what’s known as black liquor, a viscous stew of chemicals that is supposed to be purified in biological treatment plants, into nearby watercourses. “What’s going on here is a crime,” Slavant says in the video.
James Malone, a spokesman for Georgia-Pacific, called Slavant’s claims “sensationalized” and “politically motivated.” He said that the footage of the channel behind Penn Road, as shown in the video, was in fact footage of Georgia-Pacific’s permit wastewater treatment process, filmed at a stage long before it enters the river, an assertion he’s made before.
Further, Malone said that the total incidence of cancer in Ashley County, Ark., where Crossett is located, is lower compared to the national average and to the state’s. Cancer mortality rates in Ashley County have generally been at or above the state rate, except for the latest period for which there is data (2002-2004), when rates were slightly lower, according to state government health statistics. “We’re not aware of and have never been provided any data or any study that has validated those claims,” said Malone when asked if the plant’s emissions were making residents ill.
As for whether Crossett’s location might make it especially vulnerable? “If you look at the neighborhood that’s featured, it’s more than a quarter-mile away from our treatment system,” he said.
Georgia-Pacific is, as Malone noted, in full compliance with a federal and state water and air permits, though that’s little comfort to environmentalists.
“The problem is the regulators,” Slavant told HuffPost. “The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality’s way of settling a pollution problem is they look at what limits are set [on pollution] and then lower them.”
This statement was denied by ADEQ spokeswoman Cecillea Pond-Mayo, who referred HuffPost to a database on pollution standards. Pond-Mayo also forwarded on a complaint filed with the agency by a “Mr. David Bowie” of 401 Penn Road on June 28, 2011, which reported concerns over “a discharge of sewage within the city limits of Crossett” emitting “strong odors and chemicals that are corrosive to the area residents.” In a written response to the complaint, agency official John Lamb said that Georgia-Pacific officials told him the plant’s wastewater was contained in two pipelines inside the mill, which then carried the wastewater south and west to head works of the treatment plant.
“No evidence of any overflows was noted on the pipeline,” Lamb wrote upon inspection. “Before I left Crossett,” he wrote, “I drove down Penn Road and did not see or smell anything that smelled like G-P wastewater.”
But something is blackening the water in aptly named Coffee Creek and other tributaries of the Ouachita River along the Arkansas-Louisiana state line. A dark caramel color is visible in aerial photos provided to HuffPost by Slavant.
Georgia-Pacific has claimed that the color is the effect of the tannins and the lignans, which are naturally occurring chemical compounds found in plants. Such powerful dyeing agents can remain in even the cleanest paper plant’s wastewater.
The problem is, people don’t know what’s in the water and air in Crossett. Slavant is currently pursuing a $30,000 grant to fund research to determine air pollution statistics in the area.
KOCH INDUSTRIES’ LONG TRAIL OF POLLUTION
It’s not the first time a Koch Industries-owned subsidiary has run into trouble. Koch Industries has spent $500 million in six states to fix environmental violations, the video notes. And the Environmental Protection Agency has fined Koch Industries $30 million for 300 oil spills in six states. The video relates that in 2000 a federal grand jury returned a 97-count indictment against a Koch Industries subsidiary in Corpus Christi, Texas, which was charged not only with emitting more benzene (a known human carcinogen) than was permitted, but with trying to cover it up. Koch Industries eventually reached a plea bargain with attorneys from the Bush Administration Department of Justice, pleading guilty to one count of covering up environmental violations and paid a $20 million fine.
The irony is that, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer back in 2004, billionaire David Koch has donated over $500 million to cancer research, even as his company has lobbied against the formal recognition of formaldehyde as a carcinogen. In 2007 he called it the “greatest honor” he had ever received when The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was established in his name.
America’s environmental protections are under attack in Congress, HuffPost has reported. All of the Republican presidential candidates have taken aim at the EPA, pledging to cut the agency’s federal funding and strip it of the tools to address emissions.
But Jarrell says many Americans don’t understand the scope of the assault. “Unless it’s a major catastrophe, like the BP explosion, unless it involves immediate death and a high body count, there is not a lot of media focus on environmental crimes,” she said. “That’s part of the problem: People are being poisoned on a daily basis but they’re not dropping dead right away. As a result, there isn’t going to be a lot of attention, not just from the media but from people who could help, such as regulatory agencies.”
There are signs that a movement is catching on. With activists in the Occupy Wall Street movement visiting the homes of millionaires such as David Koch on Tuesday, the film may resonate as it depicts the effect that pollution from a Koch Industries-owned plant has had on the townspeople whose livelihoods depend on the industry.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Brave New Films founder Robert Greenwald explained how he sees the big picture:
What we’ve been doing is finding personal stories so that people understand: This is what happens when money corrupts the political process. It’s really as good an example as I think you’re likely to find. You see it in Arkansas. The Koch brothers with their power and their money and their influence are literally causing people to lose their lives by taking away the protections that the laws and the EPA should offer. And in this sense, by the way, it very much reflects what’s going on in the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is about the unfairness of the system, basically. This video is about the 99 percent versus the 1 percent who are controlling, influencing, deciding who gets elected and what the laws are …One of the ways I talk about it is: Politics has consequences, ideology has consequences and here you see it. It’s not abstract. It’s not a victimless crime when you advocate that there should be no protections. There are victims. There are people paying terrible prices for greed, for money and for this notion that everyone should fend for themselves.