Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Herculaneum Case

The Herculaneum Case

Herculaneum is a small town in the very heart of the United States, situated on the banks of the great Mississippi River. The folks who lived there thought of Herculaneum in the Old World sense as a village, their village. It was a place where the children could safely play outside in the streets. People knew their neighbors. A child could run down the street one direction and visit grandma, go the other way and visit an aunt or an uncle. The residents valued family, a sense of community, and small town life. Despite their blue-collar background, they were able to create comfortable homes and enjoyed an affordable lifestyle. It was a small, self-contained town, complete with a bowling alley, movie house, and all the stores one needed for life’s necessities. Herculaneum felt like home, like their village.

Most of the men worked for Doe Run, a multi-metal smelting and processing plant right downtown. They could walk to work. Thanks to the support of the company, the people enjoyed steady employment, health benefits, good schools and recently a new fire station. In the truest sense, this was a company town. Not having higher education, most families felt dependent on the presence of Doe Run in their lives. One either worked for Doe Run, or businesses that supported those who did. The company encompassed their total existence and perhaps permeated more of their lives than they actually realized.

On a typical day, the sky was various colors of yellow or murky grey, depending on the plume that was emitted out of the 550’ high smokestack from the plant. On more than one occasion, the emissions from the smokestack were so thick that a football game had to be halted because the announcer could not see the players on the field. But this was normal for Herculaneum.

A grey dust lay on the pavement, trees and bushes along the roadway where the Doe Run trucks delivered lead ore to the smelter. Cars drove over the dust, their tires brought it to their driveways, shoes tracked it into their homes. It got in their carpets, clothing, eventually even their beds. Over the years, this was accepted as merely a nuisance, causing no alarm. Residents assumed that surely if there was any real threat to their health from the dust, the company would alert them. After all they were the experts, right?

Over time some of the folks started wondering why their lawns were always dying, why their throats and eyes burnt, why the paint on the cars corroded, why some of their children seemed to be “slow,” why some of their neighbors died at too early of any age, why even the feet of their dogs and cats seemed burnt.

One family in particular, Leslie and Jack Warden, started pursuing information about the health effects of environmental pollution from lead smelting. If it could take paint off of a car, what must it be doing to their 13-year-old son's lungs? The more they learned, the more they found that they needed to know. Questions lead to meetings, meetings lead to more meetings, with the company denying any danger. Some residents, now armed with scientific knowledge knew that Doe Run's assurances rang hollow.

The smelter’s repeated violations of air pollution rules combined with findings of high levels of lead in their children's blood caused the government to become more involved. The testing of the frogs and critters in the local waterways confirmed the shocking truth: contamination due to lead, arsenic, sulfuric acid and cadmium were dangerous to the point of being declared a state of emergency.

But even with all this new information Doe Run tried to play down the seriousness of the situation. They used the classic tactics that dirty industries usually employ - first blame the victim: your house is too dirty; your children don't wash their hands enough. Then deny they are the cause: the lead is from car exhaust, or from your child's toy. Then question the researcher's findings, or present their own "unbiased research," which is always favorable. Then pit neighbor against neighbor, to divide and conquer. Meanwhile they stall for time, as the profits roll in, waiting for the storm to fade away.

Finally, after a long meeting, late at night, Jack Warden begged, cajoled, and finally convinced a visiting state environmental official to test the content of that all-pervasive grey dust that covered everything. The findings were shocking and confirmed the Warden’s worst fears. The sample tested 30% pure lead! Hundreds of time more concentrated then what is considered safe or legal.

That was it. The Wardens felt they had no choice. To protect the health of their son they had to leave the home they’d come to love, leave the community that was their special “village." They could have just sold their home, cut their loses and left. But what about the folks who bought their house? What if they believed the company's lies? Wouldn’t their children be equally damaged by the contamination? Morally they knew that they could not allow that to happen. Like it or not, they knew they had to fight on. 

Historically, Doe Run had been helpful in the past in little ways: they’d occasionally replace one’s lawn when it started looking sickly, or repaint the car when the paint corroded. But now these little fixes weren’t going to do it anymore. The company could have changed their smelting practices. They could have upgraded their machinery, or the methods of transporting the ore. But their final solution did none of these. Instead they chose the cheapest of solutions rather than to tackle the true source of the problem.

Forced by the government to act, Doe Run purchased many of the homes within three-eighths of a mile of the plant and demolished them: over 100 homes for over ten million dollars. The shops and businesses haven't been rebuilt or replaced or even abandoned, they’ve just been scraped away. What you see now when you visit downtown Herculaneum is flat bulldozed earth. The “buy-out” as it was called, removed the problem, at least temporarily.

But what about the families who have homes a few feet outside the buyout zone? The air they breathe is still just as contaminated as before. And now since all the publicity, many are trapped financially because they can't afford to leave since their house values have plummeted. They are forced to continue living in the pollution, hoping it won't affect their families.

A continent away in La Oroya, Peru another highly productive smelting plant was in full operation at their sister company's Doe Run Peru facility. As the expensive troubles were escalating in Herculaneum, Doe Run focused more and more of its operation in a country with fewer health standards, fewer environmental standards, and fewer workers’ protection standards. The pollution and contamination are so bad in La Oroya, that for the second year in a row it has made it to the top ten list of the World's Worst Polluted Places.

Leslie Warden, linked to La Oroya by a common fate, flew to Peru and testified before their Congress to fight a common enemy, the Doe Run Company and its negligent practices. Although there has been public outcry, court cases, and more hearings, little has changed in Peru. A full 50 percent of the income taxes that go into Peru's state coffers come from the mining industry. The government is weak and worried about jeopardizing future foreign investment and 4,000 jobs if they crack down on Doe Run, not to mention the tax revenue they depend on. This fear is what the owner of Doe Run depends on.

The American billionaire owner, Ira Rennert, often dangles the threat of closing either smelter if too much is demanded of him. With a stable of lawyers stalling for change, and an ability to ignore human suffering, he seems to be impervious to pressure. Meanwhile Rennert lives in luxury in New York spending lavish amounts of money on his personal residence and well-publicized charities ensuring his prominent reputation.

But Rennert cannot hide from the Leslie and Jack Wardens of the world. Many national and international organizations want and are demanding change: demanding policies that place public health over personal profits. Rennert is directly responsible for the suffering and deaths of people living in Herculaneum and La Oroya and will continue to be until he makes the environmental improvements. With increased public attention and pressure, and more governmental involvement in both countries, Rennert and his methods can be stopped.

Leslie Warden feels she is one of the lucky ones. "I was able to stand up and fight and get out. I didn't have to worry about losing my job…" The people of La Oroya are not so lucky. Most are trapped and have little hope of escaping the contamination.