Book Review: Ellen Griffith Spears: Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town
Ellen Spears’ new environmental history of the chemical industry in Anniston, Alabama is a worthy addition to the literature on environmental justice. She tells the story of Anniston, a city noted for the burning of the Freedom Riders bus in 1961, through both the narrative of civil rights and also the narrative of a modern postwar New South city dominated by the military-industrial complex. Monsanto sited one of its largest plants in Anniston and poisoned the poor and African-American part of the city with massive PCB production. Yet even as the environmental movement fought against PCB production and succeeding in ending the production of these extremely toxic substances in Anniston, Monsanto never got around to telling the local people what was in their soil and water. This quite readable story of race, environmental justice, and chemical corporate greed in one southern city is well worth the time of interested general readers.
Anniston was more of a postbellum southern city and as a representative of the New South, it cultivated both an industry-friendly pose and a city leadership that attempted moderation on racial issues, albeit well within a Jim Crow framework. Even during the bus bombings, the city’s leadership attempted to distance itself from this violence, although without granting rights to African-Americans. Like other New South cities, it attempted to cultivate a reputation of civility, even as its white citizens acted violently toward blacks. In the early 20th century, it began attracting attention from the growing chemical industry.
This growing chemical industry merged with the militarization of the United States after World War II, as national sacrifice zones developed to develop the weapons the U.S. wanted to fight the Cold War. Of course, most of these places took advantage of those who were poor and people of color. So the Mormon and Paiute downwinders of Nevada and Utah, the poor whites living outside of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the African-Americans of Anniston became those who would have to live with the impact of this production. As Spears notes, “pollution is related to other forms of inequality,” and disadvantaged people struggling for basic rights in this nation also struggled to maintain control over their bodies from the vast pollution around them because they were so poor. For wealthier and whiter Anniston in most of the 20th century, pollution was simply the price of progress. And with nonexistent or limited regulation, the corporations simply had no need to tell local people what was happening.
Monsanto developed in St. Louis in 1901 and became a major player in the synthetic chemical industry by World War I. It began expanding its product lines after World War I and entered the nascent PCB market in the 1930s. From very early, Monsanto knew of PCBs dangers because some of its workers got sick and died from exposure. But many of the laborers in the Anniston plant were African-American and so the need to tell them about any of these health issues was essentially nonexistent. Instead, Monsanto tried to shape public relations around the chemicals, assuring the public of their safety and value. That worked for awhile locally, but nationally, the environmental movement began organizing against DDT, PCBs, and other chemicals poisoning the nation. The company had a lot of lose with PCB regulations and bans and its hired scientists went so far as to commit outright fraud in their scientific reports about the safety of PCBs. It worried about being held legally responsible for all its pollution as early as 1970, as up to 80 pounds of PCBs were coming out of the plant in a single day. Finally, PCB production was banned in the United States in 1979 and Monsanto adjusted very nicely.
Through all of this, even as Monsanto was warning its industrial customers about handling PCBs, the company said absolutely nothing to the people who lived near the plant. As public knowledge of the dangers of PCBs built in the nation, activist groups began in Anniston. These usually developed out of the civil rights movement, as activists by the late 1970s started noticing the correlation between impoverished black parts of the country and where corporations and the government sited toxicity. African-Americans in Anniston had long been concerned about the impact of the factory on their community. They soon built upon the nascent environmental justice movement and began organizing to keep themselves and their neighborhoods safe. Making this all the more important was U.S. Army plans to build an incinerator in Anniston to burn chemical weapons stored at the Anniston Army Depot as the Cold War ran down. Both corporate and government entities were actively degrading the bodies of the largely African-American population living near these facilities.
With the discovery of deformed fish in nearby streams, the movement to hold Monsanto accountable really took off in the early 1990s. The activists took Monsanto to court both for compensation for the PCBs and to stop the development of the incinerator. Of course, Monsanto contested every claim. When one scientist based his expert opinion of Monsanto’s culpability by noting the high rates of PCBs in local residents’ blood, the company’s lawyers called him a “fringe scientist.” The company claimed it simply had no idea how contaminated west Anniston was and besides, it was “not a liability issue anymore because it happened so long ago”(257). But in 2003, the lawsuits finally ended with Monsanto agreeing to a $400 million settlement. Yet the attorneys received 40 percent of this money because they were working on a percentage, leaving a great deal of resentment over the attorney fees and a continuing struggle to recoup some of that money today. Plus the cleanup procedures uprooted people from their homes, disrupted ways of life, and destroyed communities. There was no real win for the people who Monsanto had made suffer.
This review is a bit unbalanced compared to the focus of the book. If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that the in depth discussions of the trials and aftermath might be a bit lengthy, taking up about third of the book. Yet while not every detail might be of particular use to scholars, it probably does engage general readers who are interested in how the case developed and who wins and who loses in these struggles. Overall, it’s a very good book, a quality addition to the literature, and likely on my syllabus the next time I teach a graduate seminar in Environmental History.