PCBs FELL ON ALABAMA
Nancy Beiles's "What Monsanto Knew" [May 29] presents a one-sided and very misleading version of issues relating to Monsanto's (now Solutia's) former polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) facility in Alabama.
Apparently Beiles was given Monsanto documents by attorneys for plaintiffs in litigation against Monsanto/Solutia, and to put the company in a bad light, Beiles used selective quotations from them out of context, giving a distorted picture. But other parts of the same documents--conveniently ignored--show Monsanto's commitment to responsible action. For example, the 1969 Monsanto memo presents this "Recommended Course of Action": "The only recommendation we can honestly make is respond responsibly admitting that there is growing evidence of environmental contamination by the higher chlorinated biphenyls and take action as new data is generated to correct the problem."
Monsanto's responses to finding PCBs in the environment were swift and effective. It dealt with the emerging issues at the highest levels of the company, committing personnel and resources to learn as much as possible about PCBs and their potential environmental and health effects. Never before had a company responded as quickly and as fully to environmental concerns. It restricted sales to electrical-equipment manufacturers only, in order to prevent environmental releases; established stringent control practices; sponsored research on environmental and health effects; and worked closely with state and federal regulatory agencies.
Despite a federal report that eliminating PCBs would cause severe disruptions in electrical distribution, Monsanto committed to stop making PCBs as soon as substitutes were developed. It voluntarily stopped making PCBs in Anniston in 1971 and ceased making PCBs altogether in 1977, two years before the EPA ban. For thirty-five years, Monsanto/Solutia has responded appropriately to PCB issues, based on sound science and effective cleanup measures.
In 1993, when early information suggested that PCBs were present in fish in Choccolocco Creek and might be present in surface water leaving the Monsanto site, the company began an extensive investigation that led to a program to acquire residential property. This program generally provided owners about twice the appraised value of their property, and it did not require that legal releases be signed. We also offered to relocate two churches. Bethel Missionary Baptist Church worked cooperatively with the company, and, with Monsanto's funding and other assistance, the congregation is now worshiping in a beautiful new church. Mars Hill Missionary Baptist Church sued Monsanto, but that case has been settled in a way intended to assure that it can relocate to a site of its choice with a comparable new church, after attorney's fees and expenses.
Two families Beiles used as illustrations of persons supposedly adversely affected by PCBs have refused generous relocation offers. Solutia is still ready to purchase those properties and is confident the residents could find equivalent or better housing if they accepted the offers. Beiles implies that health problems complained of by a family are associated with PCBs. While we understand their health concerns, there is no medical or scientific basis to suggest that exposure to environmental levels of PCBs cause adverse human health effects. Studies of persons who worked daily with PCBs only report skin conditions and possible elevations in some liver enzymes, which disappear if exposure ends. Among the largest group of plaintiffs suing Solutia, no medical expert claims that PCBs caused a specific health problem for a specific individual.
Since 1993 Solutia has done more than $30 million of remediation in Anniston. Plans for additional work await approval from state and federal regulatory agencies, and Solutia is extensively investigating nearby waterways. We will continue our efforts to manage and control PCBs associated with our operations in Anniston, and we are working to find appropriate ways to resolve the many issues facing the community and us. These issues can be resolved only by addressing them in a fair and balanced manner. We do not feel that Beiles's article contributed to that process.
ROBERT G. KALEY, II
Director, environmental affairs, Solutia
I'm sorry Bob Kaley feels that the article was one-sided. It's hard to know, however, on what he's basing that perception. I spoke extensively with both him and Adam Peck, one of the lawyers for Monsanto, and their understanding of the situation in Anniston is featured prominently in the article, including their assertions that the company took action as soon as it learned of the problem, that it doesn't believe there are serious health consequences from extended exposure and that the company has acted in a responsible manner. A big part of the story, though, is that, Monsanto's arguments notwithstanding, Anniston residents believe they've been wronged by a major corporation that could have acted differently, and the internal company documents collected by the plaintiffs' lawyers underscore that feeling. I discussed the general content of all the documents cited in the story with representatives of Monsanto/Solutia, and, again, their explanations are included in the piece. Far from attributing any sinister actions or motives to the company, I chose to let its own words, as captured in the documents, speak for themselves. Kaley is correct in pointing out that one of the documents cited recommends responding responsibly to the PCB issue. That recommendation, however, is hard to reconcile with some of the activities that were actually undertaken, like concealing from the community for decades what the company knew about chemical releases and hazards and altering the results of toxicity studies. Kaley may believe that the company's response to the PCB contamination was "swift and effective," but there are more than 3,000 people in Anniston who have been exposed to these chemicals, some for close to forty years, who think otherwise.
While Monsanto did cease the manufacture of PCBs two years before the EPA banned them, that doesn't mitigate the fact that the company had, for years, been releasing them into the environment, activity which has created a contaminated community.
Monsanto's property-purchase program has helped some residents move away from the contaminated areas, but there are many in Anniston who have lived there for generations and have no interest in leaving their homes, despite the fact that a federal agency has declared the PCB contamination to be a public health hazard. As Jeremiah Smith told me, he's lived in Anniston for a long time and "what they've done to me they've done already." He suffers from kidney disease, and he'd rather be sick in a place he feels connected to than sick and displaced. People like Smith want Monsanto to pay for cleanups of their property. They hope the court will insist on it. The McFarlanes declined Monsanto's purchase offer because they felt that the offer wasn't sufficient for them to be able to buy a home in another town; real estate prices are understandably higher in towns free of contamination.
Finally, Kaley's assertion that PCB exposure does not carry any serious health effects is disputed by a wide body of scientific literature that suggests that the chemicals are a probable carcinogen and cause liver dysfunction and developmental disorders, among other things. Even so, the plaintiffs' suit is based on contamination of their bodies and properties with PCBs and makes no claim based on medical problems. That's why medical experts in the case haven't suggested that PCBs have caused specific health problems in a particular person; the plaintiffs aren't making that case, although given the scientific literature, logic suggests they could.
Clearly, there are a lot of disputed issues in Anniston. I hope the court will be able to resolve them soon.
Having served in the eighties as senior attorney at the EPA for the lead phasedown, the program that took the lead out of gasoline, and having spent the past ten years researching the history of gasoline lead, I would be the first to say the lead story should be publicized.
Yet I have serious concerns about Jamie Kitman's "The Secret History of Lead" [March 20]. Kitman argues that the root cause of the toxic lead legacy is a plot by GM and its partners to knowingly poison the public for their own profits. Allegations of that kind should not be published unless they are supported by substantial evidence, which I find lacking in Kitman's account. The article is framed as a "secret history" of lead. However, the word "secret" barely appears in the text, and with good reason: (1) all the information presented in the article is publicly available in archives; (2) though the article presents a sensationalized version, all of its conclusions have appeared previously in works published by others; (3) while the companies attempted to keep knowledge of the lead poisonings private, the hazard ultimately came to light in a very public way.
Framing the lead story as secret is not a harmless literary device. It distracts from the real story-that the review of gasoline lead in the twenties was the first federal review of a modern environmental health problem and that it developed the principles that governed environmental policy for the next two generations.
Kitman builds the story line around an alleged plot by the companies, billed in the accompanying press release as a "conspiracy," to suppress an allegedly superior antiknock alternative, ethanol. This is based on Kitman's belief that by 1917 GM had picked ethanol as its "additive of choice." That is incorrect. The record actually shows that in its search for the best antiknock, GM discarded ethanol on the merits. Ethanol did not even make the semifinals. As evidence, Kitman quotes Scientific American, April 13, 1918: "It is now definitely established that alcohol can be blended with gasoline to produce a suitable motor fuel." That issue of Scientific American does not contain the quoted statement. It actually reads, "Alcohol has often been suggested, but it is not altogether satisfactory."
Did GM have the power to suppress ethanol? In 1922, when GM began to commercialize lead additive, it was not the "industrial behemoth" it now is-the real behemoth was Ford-and it could not simply impose its will. Did refiners refuse to use any additive, such as ethanol, which they did not produce? No. In fact, refiners who initially declined to use lead, including Ethyl's parent, Standard Oil, overwhelmingly favored benzol, a coal oil it did not produce. While the article raises the public profile of the lead story, the good information it provides is commingled with factual errors and is framed within an extreme and undocumented conspiracy theory. I am concerned that if the article is taken as authoritative, when serious scholars discredit it, as inevitably they will, it will taint the credibility of any environmental advocate who has adopted it. Thus, the Kitman article should be treated as an advocacy piece rather than as an objective historical treatment. A credible account of the lead story will have to wait for another day.
ALAN P. LOEB
Regarding Alan Loeb's three points: (1) All the information is not available in archives. For one thing, many records are missing from the Surgeon General's office in the National Archive. We know they're missing from checking at other archives, but most of the material has never seen the light of day. And there is still a lot of information in the archives that has not been made available to the general public or has appeared only in technical or academic journals or in unpublished papers by specialists.
(2) All my conclusions have not appeared previously. In general, the issue has been pretty well mischaracterized by good historians who lacked resources. Also, Loeb seems to have a contradiction here: On the one hand, he says all my conclusions have already appeared, and on the other, he says my article "will taint the credibility of any environmental advocate who has adopted it."
(3) Of course the poisonings came to light. The secret was not the poisonings but the technological decision-making process, which has been only partly understood in recent years. The government vetting process was deeply flawed; the result was tragic. Loeb says GM tested ethanol and found it wanting. If ethanol was discarded by GM on the merits, what about the Midgley and Boyd paper in 1922? What about the development of "synthol" in 1926? What time are we considering the "course of GM's research"? Certainly by 1927 GM researchers had dropped ethanol, but why? Was it because antiknock research had systematically examined all the alternatives and selected the best, as Loeb implies? Or could there have been other reasons?
Loeb says GM didn't have the power to suppress ethanol. This argument is so problematic I hardly know where to start. Yes, it's true GM didn't suppress the use of ethanol by others, but it did suppress advocacy of ethanol by its own scientists. The difference between the manuscript version and the printed version of the 1922 Midgley and Boyd paper on ethanol fuel is one example. The initial enthusiasm in internal memos and the subsequent silence speaks of internal censorship. As for Standard Oil, it may have been having supply problems with benzene extracted from coal, and it was certainly having problems with patent lawsuits over the Houdry process for making higher octane gasoline. Its routes to higher octane fuel were limited, so it did experiment with ethanol. It didn't use it, for reasons never made public, but it did start a rumor campaign in 1932 against ethanol, and its hostility toward ethanol is longstanding.
I look forward to Alan Loeb's long-awaited book on lead, which, if his letter is any preview, will reach conclusions widely divergent from my own.
JAMIE LINCOLN KITMAN