Pollution site victims fight for compensation
Author: Alan Elsner, National Correspondent
"The creek was usually dried out, unless it had rained. We would skid our wheels and embers would fly in the air. We thought it was pretty cool and we did it a lot," Mercer said. Sometimes the creek, now designated by the federal government as one of the 1,200 most urgent hazardous waste sites, smoked by day, glowed by night and would spontaneously burst into flames.
The United States is grappling with the huge problem of cleaning up some of its most severely contaminated waste sites, which like the creek, are an unwanted legacy of its industrial past.
The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that after nearly 20 years and outlays of more than $14 billion, the Superfund program has yet to complete cleanups of 42 percent of the 1,200 sites on the list. Thousands more sites remain to be studied.
This year, President George W. Bush's budget requested $1.3 billion for Superfund. That's for the sites. Despite the publicity generated by movies like "Erin Brockovich" and "A Civil Action," the human victims of such pollution are on their own.
Mercer's parents, Robert and Nancy Batson, and their neighbors did not know that Dead Creek was a deadly toxic dumping group for industrial plants. Those poisons often overflowed into the pond in their back yard.
FROGS WITH TWO HEADS
"We would see fish with tumors, frogs with two heads. It was gross," Mercer said. That didn't stop neighborhood kids from digging holes around the banks of the pond, jumping in to cool off in summer, skating on the poisoned surface in winter.
"I took many a mouthful," Mercer said.
Now, Robert Batson has leukemia, several of his neighbors have died of cancer and his four children live in constant fear they will also get sick.
Batson and some 15 other Sauget residents are suing some 30 companies for damages, alleging they negligently discharged toxic substances into the air and sewer system and failed to warn citizens of Sauget of the danger. Batson would like his medical bills covered and frequent medical monitoring for his children to ensure early detection if they develop cancer.
An analysis by PHR Environmental Consultants Inc., conducted in 1999 for the purpose of a federally mandated cleanup, identified 12 zones of extreme contamination in the area located close to the Mississippi River opposite the city of St. Louis. Until 1967, Sauget was known as the Village of Monsanto, after the largest industrial company operating within its bounds.
"Contaminants identified to date in the subject area include: PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), heavy metals including arsenic, barium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc; volatile organic compounds, including chloroform, benzene, 111-trichloethene, tetrachloroethene, chlorobenzene, toluene and xylenes; semi-volatile organic compounds such as phenol, naphthalene and pentachlorophenol; pesticides; the breakdown products of chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents have also been detected in the ground water," the report said.
Exposure to many of these compounds, especially PCBs, dioxins and benzene, is known to cause cancer in humans and animals.
The PHR report states that pollution of Dead Creek began in 1918 when St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. began manufacturing chemicals there. As early as 1923, six local landowners sued Monsanto for damages to their agricultural land caused by the release of chemical wastes into Dead Creek.
Over the years, dozens of companies contributed to the problem. Some are no longer in business; some have been acquired by other companies. Monsanto itself has spun off its Sauget plant to a subsidiary, Solutia Inc.
Solutia has taken responsibility for cleaning up the site and spent around $17 million trying to do so. Solutia bought the Batson's house for $40,000 last year and demolished it.
But the company, which last April settled a similar case of PCB contamination in Alabama for $40 million, is fighting the lawsuit. Solutia has petitioned to have the case