Toxic town; town of Anniston, Alabama, is contaminated due to manufacture of PCBs
CBS News Transcripts
60 Minutes - CBS
November 10, 2002 Sunday

STEVE KROFT, co-host: Imagine a place so saturated with toxic, cancer-causing chemicals, that it's in the dirt people walk on, in the air that they breathe, even in the blood that pumps through their veins. The 24,000 people in Anniston, Alabama, don't have to imagine this; many of them are living it. In fact, they've been living it for decades; they just didn't know it. The company responsible didn't tell them, and neither did the US Environmental Protection Agency.

(Footage of people in Anniston, Alabama; David Baker with Kroft)

KROFT: (Voiceover) Today, parts of Anniston are so contaminated that residents have been told not to grow vegetables in the soil, kick up dirt, eat food, chew gum or smoke cigarettes while working in their own yards. David Baker grew up here.

Mr. DAVID BAKER: Our children have to play in the streets, on the sidewalks, because they can't play in the grass because it's contaminated. We have to wear a mask if we cut our grass. Where else in the United States of America is people doing that?

(Footage of bottle of chemicals; electric transformers; printing press; photo of chemical plant; footage of water tower with Monsanto logo; chemical plant; people in Anniston)

KROFT: (Voiceover) The problem is polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs, one of the most pervasive and profitable industrial chemicals of the 20th century. They were used as insulators in electric transformers and mixed into everything from paint to newsprint. They were invented in Anniston in 1929 and manufactured here by Monsanto for almost 40 years, a source of wealth and jobs until the 1970s, when it became clear that PCBs were doing more harm to the environment than good for industry. They were banned in 1979, but the people here are still living with the legacy.

Dr. DAVID CARPENTER: In my judgment there's no question but what this is the most contaminated site in the US.

(Footage of Dr. Carpenter in lab)

KROFT: (Voiceover) Dr. David Carpenter is a professor of environmental health at the State University of New York in Albany, and an expert on PCBs. He says every national and international health agency in the world lists PCBs as a probable human carcinogen.

What does that mean?

Dr. CARPENTER: That means that there's absolute, definitive evidence that they cause cancer in animals, and that there is evidence in humans consistent with the conclusion that they cause cancer.

KROFT: Is this still a subject for debate?

Dr. CARPENTER: Within the objective scientific community and within the government bodies, there is no debate at all.

(Footage of Carpenter; west Anniston neighborhood; group of people)

KROFT: (Voiceover) Dr. Carpenter says PCB exposure increases the risk of almost all major diseases, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. PCBs were so widely used and last so long, that almost all of us have minute levels in our bloodstreams. The people who live in west Anniston, the area closest to the plant, have some of the highest PCB levels in the world. Anything above one and a half parts per billion is considered unusual.

Unidentified Man #1: I have 22 parts per billion.

Unidentified Woman #1: I have 33.

Unidentified Woman #2: I have 77.75.

Unidentified Woman #3: I have 65.4 parts per billion in my body.

(Footage of group; people in auditorium)

KROFT: All of them have major health problems, from diabetes to cancer, and they're convinced it's because of the PCBs. They're just a handful of some 20,000 current or former residents who have joined five different lawsuits against Monsanto for polluting their community, threatening their health and destroying their property.

Mr. DAVID BAKER: This is part of Snow Creek. We call it Stink Creek, Snow Creek.

(Footage of Kroft with Baker walking along Snow Creek; burial site of PBCs on hillside)

KROFT: (Voiceover) Monsanto dumped tons of raw PCBs directly into Snow Creek, which runs by the plant. Five thousand additional tons are buried in a hillside, and David Baker believes they're still giving off fumes.

Mr. BAKER: Where is PCB coming from if you stopped making it in 1971? You stop making this stuff in 1971, and I'm still breathing it in 2002. You're sitting here now, you're breathing PCBs. There's no question about it.

(Footage of Baker; Donald Stewart at office)

KROFT: (Voiceover) Baker and 3,500 other plaintiffs are being represented by Donald Stewart, an attorney and former US senator who lives in Anniston.

Former Senator DONALD STEWART: The community that lives in west Anniston, hardworking kind of folks, decent kind of people, but they're not the wealthiest people in the world. And so they fish a lot and consume these fish that were filled with PCBs, raised poultry, raised other animals, hogs, and at no point in time did the company ever inform the people in that community about the problem that they were facing.

KROFT: Why not, do you think?

Mr. STEWART: Well, my suspicion is that they knew that one day we would be in the situation we're in right now. The internal documents indicate that they knew they had tremendous liability there at that plant site.

(Footage of Monsanto documents; Snow Creek)

KROFT: (Voiceover) Stewart uncovered close to a million pages of company documents that show Monsanto knew PCBs were a problem as early as 1938, when scientists hired by the company reported that rats exposed to the chemicals developed liver damage. By the 1950s, Monsanto was urging its own workers to wear proper protective clothing and respiratory equipment when handling PCBs. Many of the documents were marked 'confidential: Read and destroy.' In one, from 1966, a scientist working for Monsanto found Snow Creek so polluted with chemicals that it was devoid of life. Healthy fish submerged in the creek turned belly-up and died within three minutes.

Mr. STEWART: They were warned by the people who did those tests that they should warn their neighbors because children and animals might be affected by what was being released from their plant. They knew PCBs were harmful to humans, said not one word about it.

(Footage of Monsanto confidential documents; factory in Anniston)

KROFT: (Voiceover) In 1969, Monsanto created a high level PCB Committee whose mission was to 'protect the image of the corporation' and 'permit continued sales and profits.' Even they concluded that PCBs will someday become a 'global environmental contaminant.' But no one passed that information on to the community or to state and federal regulators.

They tried to keep it a secret.

Mr. STEWART: Or they lied, is basically what they did. It would be called, I guess, in our part of the country, a sin of omission.

KROFT: In fact, people in Anniston might never have known about the contamination if it weren't for a man with the Soil Conservation Service who pulled a badly deformed largemouth bass out of Choccolocco Creek back in 1993. Instead of throwing it back, he decided to send it off to an independent lab for analysis. Turns out the fish was loaded with PCBs.

(Footage of lake; public health advisory sign; fenced off land; Monsanto plant; boxes of documents in Stewart's office)

KROFT: (Voiceover) By that time, the contamination had spread 40 miles downstream. The state of Alabama put out warnings not to eat local fish. And about the same time, Monsanto began quietly buying up property in west Anniston, bulldozing houses and fencing off the land. Parts of the neighborhood look like a ghost town. So far, Monsanto has settled three of the lawsuits for nearly $80 million. But Donald Stewart and his clients wanted their day in court, and earlier this year they won a huge victory.

After a six-week trial, an Alabama jury found that Monsanto had engaged in outrageous behavior, and held the corporation and its corporate successors liable on all six counts it considered, including negligence, nuisance, wantonness and suppression of the truth.

KROFT: (Voiceover) Now the court is trying to assess damages. John Hunter is a longtime Monsanto executive, and now the CEO of Solutia, which is what Monsanto's old chemical business is now called. Monsanto spun it off into a separate company in 1997, just as the lawsuits were getting under way.

The jury in Alabama found you guilty, if that's the right word, of behavior 'so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society.' I've never heard a--a--a finding like that before.

Mr. JOHN HUNTER (CEO, Solutia): I don't know what influenced the jury in their finding.

KROFT: I think the fact that there were documents going back showing that the company knew that it was toxic, that it had possible effects on--on humans, and yet continued to dump large quantities of it in the streams and creek beds was one of the reasons.

Mr. HUNTER: Steve, there are a lot of documents in that trial, and as I have said, I can't speculate on all of those documents or what decision process led to those documents. What I do know is that we're committed to cleaning up the PCBs.

KROFT: You understand the anger of the community?

Mr. HUNTER: I understand the concerns of the Anniston community. And, you know, if you're asking me do I wish that things might have been done differently in the past than they were? Sure I do.

(Footage of Anniston; EPA building; Stan Meiburg with Kroft) KROFT: (Voiceover) But the residents of Anniston aren't just angry with Monsanto, they're also angry with the EPA, which had been aware of the contamination since the 1970s and never warned the community, either. Stan Meiburg is the EPA's deputy regional administrator for the Southeast.

How could the EPA know that this pollution and contamination existed and not alert the people in the community?

Mr. STAN MEIBURG (EPA, Deputy Regional Administrator, Southeast): I do think that if we had known that the contamination was as widespread as we now believe it to be, there were additional measures that we could have taken, and probably should.

KROFT: But we have a--a 1987 draft report--just a draft, not a final copy--ordering Monsanto to determine the extent of the problem in Anniston and take corrective action. Whatever happened to that?

Mr. MEIBURG: What happened was that order was not issued.

KROFT: Because?

Mr. MEIBURG: I do not know.

KROFT: Monsanto's known about this problem with the PCBs since 1938, and the federal government's known about it since the late-1970s. People in Anniston didn't find out until 1993. How do--how do you explain that?

Mr. MEIBURG: We absolutely understand the concerns that people have in Anniston, and one of the things that has occurred in this is we have learned from the community.

KROFT: This past summer, when it looked like an Alabama judge might order the company to remove all the PCBs from Anniston, the EPA stepped in and signed a consent decree with Solutia giving the company two more years to study the problem, and then propose its own cleanup.

Essentially, instead of the government deciding what needs to be done, you're allowing Monsanto to decide what needs to be done.

Mr. MEIBURG: I wouldn't characterize it that way. Any actions that will be taken on what's going to be done ha--will have to have the approval of the EPA.

KROFT: Why give Monsanto the benefit of the doubt? If you look at the records, and you look at the documents, they've been lying about this for 20 years, 30 years, haven't they?

Mr. MEIBURG: And that's why our job is not to trust. Our job is to oversee, to verify, to use the enforcement tools that we have to make sure that the cleanup proceeds in the way it should.

KROFT: Solutia says it's already spent more than $50 million on the cleanup. Using its own measurements and EPA standards, it doesn't believe Anniston residents are being exposed to what it calls significant levels of PCBs.

Mr. HUNTER: We've sampled over 1,000 residential properties, and only 24 of those are required for immediate action. We're taking action on this. Unfortunately, the lawyers for the plaintiffs are advising the--the property owners to deny us access for the property. So we stand there ready to clean up those properties, and can't do it for that reason.

Mr. STEWART: We want our clients' property completely cleaned, and not this half measure that they are proposing. We also want our folks to do the testing. We've got soil sample experts who can do testing. We don't trust Monsanto's test.

KROFT: They don't trust you.

Mr. HUNTER: Steve, I think that the best way that you can judge someone's words is to watch their actions.

KROFT: I think that mistrust is based on the company's actions over the last 35 to 65 years.

Mr. HUNTER: Steve, I would hope that they would look at Solutia for what Solutia is doing now.

KROFT: What Solutia seems to be doing now is resisting the complete removal of all the PCBs from Anniston, something that could cost $1/2 billion.

Finally, after 15 years, the federal government is promising $3 million to study the health effects of long-term PCB exposure on the residents of Anniston.