Synthesis/Regeneration 12   (Winter 1997)

No Environmental Justice . . .

Profile of a National Sacrifice Area: Calvert City, Kentucky

by Corinne Whitehead, President, Coalition for Health Concern

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) completed construction of the last dam in the Tennessee River in the late 1940s. TVA displaced landowners who had owned and worked the rich Tennessee River bottom lands. The water then covered the fertile land. TVA and local promoters recruited chemical industries to locate at Calvert City, Kentucky, below the Kentucky Dam. "Cheap electricity" and "Ruhr of the South" became buzz words in business circles. The first industry located in Calvert City manufactured pesticides. Later arrivals interconnected their chemical processes by pipelines. Dangerous products included chlorine, polyvinyl chloride, acetylene, sodium hydroxide, ethylene dichloride, formaldehyde, methyl-amines, chloroflurocarbons, hydrofluoric acid, specialty polymers, and scores of chemical intermediates.

Displaced farmers and tenants became chemical industry workers. Their education was agricultural not industrial. The workers were thankful for a job that paid decent wages. A garden and a small piece of land for cattle and hogs supplemented their standard of living. The work force was willing and cooperative. They were white and black and in the "poor" class. Earnings from chemical plants made it possible for the workers to build standard homes. They were proud of their standing and place in the community.

The meaning of "Ruhr of the South" had no explanation until years later when it became known that most of the industries came to Calvert City as a result of the Potsdam Treaty following World War II. The chemical formulas and ownership were basically European. Companies included SKW, General Aniline and Film, the British Oxygen Group, Carbon Graphite Group, B.F. Goodrich Chemicals/Westlake (Formosa), Air Products and Chemicals, De Gussa, Elf Atochem, Estron Chemicals, and others.

Liquid Waste Disposal, Inc. (LWD) is a commercial hazardous waste incineration facility listed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the largest in Region IV. There is a railroad tanker and truck washing facility to wash chemical residues. There are waste hauling and chemical hauling companies, and LWD operates a large commercial landfill.

All went well for several years. . . Then workers began to die of cancer at an early age.

All went well for several years, with community pride in the claimed economic progress generated by the electrical power from the dam and industry recruiting by TVA. Then workers began to die of cancer at an early age. The workers were trusting, not trained in chemistry, and wanted to believe that management would be protective. They were reluctant to blame the workplace for their illness. Historically, Calvert City chemical industries did not inform their workers of the dangers of the chemicals they were processing and exposures they were receiving. Government regulations required Manufacturing Safety Data Sheets for workers. But Calvert City chemical companies did not make Data Sheets available to workers for many years after the regulations went into effect. New industry policy retired workers at ages 50-52. Some workers said "they do not want us to die on their hands."

Kentucky vital statistics in 1983 showed Marshall County as having the highest rate of cancer mortality in the state. This area had a very low rate of cancer historically. There were no cancer specialists in all of western Kentucky until the early 1980s. Now, there are many oncologists and cancer-associated specialists. This is a "cancer hot spot" according to Dr. Samuel Epstein, well-known researcher at the University of Illinois School for Environmental Medicine. A recent cancer cluster study revealed a rate 67% above the national average for a portion of Marshall County (including Calvert City) and two downwind counties. High rates for two extremely rare types of cancer (Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and Soft Tissue Sarcoma) were prime indicators of the environmental dangers. The number of small children one and a half years and older as well as young mothers who are dying is alarming.

The official response has been polite denial when faced with cancer maps and lists of victims. Industry considers Environmentalists "enemies of the people" when we point out the realities of health degradation. Meanwhile, physicians have flocked to the area. Medicine is the largest business in Paducah, Kentucky according to the media. When one considers that Paducah is a small rural town, the listing as a major medical center is ludicrous.

The three commercial hazardous waste incinerators owned by LWD receive over 70% of their waste from other states and countries. We believe that LWD has operated "Free and Wild" since 1978. LWD is one of two US facilities still operating with a temporary (interim) permit. LWD is not permitted to dispose or handle nuclear waste. However, they have accepted nuclear waste according to a congressional investigation. Kentucky accorded LWD confidential status.

In addition to the three LWD hazardous waste incinerators that spew dioxin into the air, there are incinerators at other industries that burn chlorinated waste. We believe there are presently four such burners, and a new one entering the permitting process. Retired military officer Keene McKinney, acting as general manager of LWD, has solicited waste from military bases across the US. Apparently, LWD is approved by the Pentagon as a national security site.

The Coalition for Health Concern began a "Hunt the Toxic Dump" project in 1985. . . . we documented 251 hazardous waste dump sites in and next to Calvert City.

The Coalition for Health Concern began a "Hunt the Toxic Dump" project in 1985. With the Kentucky Division of Waste under Don Harker, we documented 251 hazardous waste dump sites in and next to Calvert City. Kentucky mapped and listed these sites. Nothing has been done to clean up the sites along the Tennessee River. Any one of the 251 could be a Superfund Site, since contaminants are the same as at the NPL Superfund Site on the river contaminated by B.F. Goodrich and the BOC Group.

A 1985 TVA study showed that Calvert City industries produced and dumped into the Tennessee River more pollutants than all other industries in the TVA seven state area. The Tennessee River has always been a convenient sewer in which to dump chemical wastes.

We are asking that they not be removed somewhere else to poison unsuspecting people.

Dr. Hunter Hancock, Professor of Biology at nearby Murray State University, made the first study of the effects of chemical contaminants on fish in the 1970s. Tissue tests showed the highest levels of mercury in fish in the U.S. Industry roundly condemned Dr. Hancock for reporting the mercury contaminants. Everyone from commercial fishermen to the economic development promoters were angry and critical of his research. Murray State University and Calvert City industries forced him into early retirement. The next person held up to public condemnation and fired was Don Harker, who had ordered LWD closed down and the site cleaned up. No official reason was ever given for Mr. Harker's dismissal. He said he had "pushed the system" in Kentucky.

On December 21, 1994, the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) fired Brian Holtzclaw, an employee of the U.S. EPA, Region IV, Atlanta, Georgia and on loan to Kentucky. Mr. Holtzclaw was Coordinator of the Geographic Initiatives Studies (GIS) at Calvert City and the Tri-State (OH/WV/KY) area. The purpose of the GIS is to document the sources of pollution, to project the final course of the pollutants, and to assess the potential health risk for the affected population. The GIS is a one-of-a-kind research and remediation project and requires special expertise. Mr. Holtzclaw is a highly awarded employee at U.S. EPA. He is a chemical engineer. Mr. Holtzclaw's "sin" was writing reports that apparently offended powerful corporate polluters. There was also his insistence on using the health demographics expertise of Dr. John Stockwell, the only health specialist employed by U.S. EPA to do technical analysis in the Calvert City and Tri-State areas.

Dr. Stockwell never did get to Kentucky to look at the pollution situation. A strange blocking of his telephone messages from Mr. Holtzclaw and surveillance of his mail took place. Dr. Stockwell professed to be willing to come to Kentucky even if he had to ride a bus. All the time, the Kentucky DEP and U.S. EPA told Holtzclaw that Dr. Stockwell did not wish to come to Kentucky. We believe Kentucky is scuttling the Calvert City Multimedia Study (air, waste, and water, which we helped initiate and which became a national model) at a very critical stage, with Mr. Holtzclaw's dismissal. Twenty-four other environmental organizations joined with the Coalition for Health Concern in demanding that Kentucky renew Holtzclaw's contract for two more years to allow for completion of important studies.

The Calvert City chemical complex is not the only environmental disaster which concerns us. Shortly after the Kentucky Dam was completed, the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PGDP) was creating great excitement among "economic development" promoters. The Gaseous Diffusion facility under the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy (DOE) was constructed to enrich uranium.

The farm owners were not bought out by the government and remained on their land. From 1952 until 1986 the mass of uranium on-site was 7,300,000 pounds of solid, 61,000 pounds of liquid, and 130,000 pounds of gas. That is 20,500 curies of solid, and 48 curies of gas and liquid. Thirteen percent by mass of all DOE military waste is buried here. Radiation levels in Big Bayou Creek were found to be 400 times above normal background, and the Ohio River was significantly elevated in radiation as opposed to the upstream count. Over 2000 acres of groundwater and the aquifer are acutely contaminated.

"They take good care of the machinery, but the workers are not cared about. The machinery costs money. Humans are cheap; there is always someone to take my job."

The poisoned plumes are very near the Ohio River as they move underground. A figure of 546 pounds of radioactive contaminants blown into the air each month was made public. In addition, there have been human "experiments" carried out by exposure to radioactive materials. Large amounts of PCB's were land-farmed on site; dioxins and furans are in the soil. The contamination is so overwhelming that common sense tells us it is impossible to remediate. There are over 28,000 cylinders of depleted uranium hexafluoride stored on site. We are asking that they be stored in earthquake-proof concrete structures and monitored carefully. We are asking that they not be removed somewhere else to poison unsuspecting people. An estimated 80,000 drums, contaminated with uranium compounds, were crushed and left in a huge pile for years at the northwest corner of the plant. A million gallon diesel fuel spill has been documented. Train car loads of plutonium contaminated ash were shipped from the Paducah plant to the Fernald, Ohio plant. Workers in Ohio were exposed to 700 times above the allowable limit of radiation. They were not told. Also, the Paducah workers were never told that plutonium was on site. In fact, this was always officially denied when we asked about it.

A December 1990 report states that the Kentucky Department of Radiation Control Branch could not depend on DOE or Martin Marietta Systems to protect the health and safety of the citizens in the area from significant releases of uranium into creeks. Needless to mention, nearby residents are dying of cancer, leukemia, and similar diseases in high numbers. There has never been an independent study of the PGDP work force, or of the unfortunate landowners, whose property has been contaminated and poisoned. We demand that the property owners who wish to leave the area be bought out and relocated. There has been no indication this will happen.

Environmental Justice is an ethical and moral issue that affects all peoples, all industries, and all states.

The threat to the public health would be serious enough if the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Hazardous Waste laws had been meticulously enforced. The historical failure to do so has placed Kentucky's rating near the bottom nationally. We are convinced that the enforcement failure by Kentucky authorities is the prime reason for the plague of illness seen here. It is the reason that

The day a friend retired from Calvert City industry, after more than 20 years, he made a significant statement. His words were, "I am so glad to get out of that place! They take good care of the machinery, but the workers are not cared about. The machinery costs money. Humans are cheap; there is always someone to take my job." Many of the workers in his plant had died of throat cancer. The bag-houses for filtering dusty air were regularly turned off, except when an inspection was coming up. After the inspectors left, the bag-houses were again turned off, and the contaminants spewed into the community air. The bags are "expensive," was the excuse. In many instances, the Marshall County governing body underwrote the bonds used to pay for clean air devices at a very low interest rate, to accommodate the industries.

Environmental justice appears to be almost unknown by Kentucky officialdom. We are convinced the failure to strictly enforce the environmental laws in Kentucky is the reason for the plague of illness seen here. Environmental justice is not a black issue, or a white issue, or an Hispanic issue, or even a rich or poor issue. The dioxin spewed out of LWD's stacks and other incinerators goes out for thousands of miles, according to an atmospheric scientist. The chemicals dumped into the Tennessee River daily by the millions of gallons all go downriver to poison children as far away as New Orleans. The radioactive contaminants dumped into Big Bayou Creek go downriver. Such radioactive poisons have been found in the drinking water at New Orleans. The poisoned groundwater is a criminal legacy that can kill for generations to come. Environmental Justice is an ethical and moral issue that affects all peoples, all industries, and all states. Until Kentucky and the U.S. EPA strictly enforce the laws the tragedy will continue. The victimization of communities or groups who are economically or socially deprived is even more egregious when accomplished in the name of economic development and social uplift. It is a historical fact that Frankfort and Midway, Kentucky (home of the former governor) and other affluent communities are never the subject for the locations of nasty, killing businesses.

The official policy of requiring charters for businesses that was mandated in the early days of the U.S. is one that should be reinstated. With the charter comes accountability to the state and community-when the charter is violated the business should be closed. The founders of this country were wise in setting up the charter requirements to avoid the pitfalls of the big merchandising companies incorporated by England.

Commitment to waste prevention, waste reduction, and waste remediation is a necessary policy for states, localities, and industries. Environmental justice is a basic human rights issue and must be so addressed.

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