In a small brick house strung year-round with Christmas lights, behind curtains made of flowered sheets, Jeremiah Smith is listening to his favorite preacher on the radio. As tonight’s installment of the Gospels winds down, Smith, who has warm brown eyes and a shock of graying black hair, takes a seat at a table draped with a zebra-print cloth and piled high with papers and drifts back thirty years, to the brief period when he was a hog farmer. Like others in Anniston, Alabama, an industrial town with rural traditions, Smith used to raise vegetables and livestock in his yard to provide additional food for his family. “We were poor people,” he says in a thick drawl. “We had to raise food ourselves…. We were trying to survive and live.”
Smith planted potatoes and greens in his backyard. He also had a cow and rabbits, but most of his time and attention went to his hogs. In 1970 he had about fifty–too many for his small plot of land, so he led them, Pied Piper-like, past the old Bethel Baptist Church, the Lucky-7 Lounge and the labyrinth of pipes and smokestacks that surrounded the Monsanto chemical plant his father helped build, to a grassy hill where they could graze. Each evening before heading off to work the night shift at a pipe company, Smith would check on them, give them some feed and, when the need arose, he’d bring home some bacon.
One night, as he was feeding the hogs, a man from the Monsanto plant drove up the hill in a flatbed truck and made him an offer: $10 apiece for the hogs and a bottle of Log Cabin whiskey. The offer was intriguing. Smith had begun to notice that something was wrong with some of his hogs anyway; their mouths had turned green. And Smith, ever in need of cash, could hardly afford to pass up $500. He sold. But for more than twenty years, he wondered what on earth a chemical company would want with his hogs.
Problem: Damage to the ecological system by contamination from polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB).
Legal Liability: Direct lawsuits are possible. The materials are already present in nature having done their “alleged damage.” All customers using the products have not been officially notified about known effects nor [do] our labels carry this information.
–Memo from Monsanto committee studying PCBs, 1969
People Jeremiah Smith’s age are old enough to remember Monsanto’s glory days in Anniston. The company provided well-paying jobs and helped nurture this friendly Southern town’s sense of community. Residents used to marvel at the plant’s well-manicured grounds, which the company sometimes let them use for Easter-egg hunts. Most never thought to connect Monsanto to some of the odder features of life in Anniston. Like the creek, known locally as “the ditch,” which passed through town carrying water that ran red some days, purple on others and occasionally emitted a foggy white steam.
Public Image: The corporate image of Monsanto as a responsible member of the business world genuinely concerned with the welfare of our environment will be adversely affected with increased publicity….
Sources of Contamination: Although there may be some soil and air contamination involved, by far the most critical problem at present is water contamination…. Our manufacturing facilities sewered a sizable quantity of PCB’s in a year’s time….
–Monsanto committee memo, 1969
Over time, the residents of West Anniston, Alabama, came to believe they had been silently poisoned for decades by Monsanto. Many also believe that if the contamination had occurred in the more affluent (and more heavily white) east side of town, there would have been more scrutiny by the government. The change in attitude was spurred by what at first seemed like a straightforward real estate transaction between Monsanto and a local church.