Prosecuting environmental whistleblowers to protect the guilty

On a muggy Thursday morning in June, I drove through the gates of the Federal Correctional Institute in Tallahassee to meet a convicted criminal who, as far as I can tell, is the only person connected to two huge environmental contamination cases in Mississippi to ever serve prison time.

Yet, strangely, the convicted felon I was on my way to meet wasn’t a polluter. On the contrary, Tennie White, who was prosecuted by a joint team made up of attorneys from the Environmental Protection Agency and the environmental crimes division of the Justice Department, had spent her professional life exposing contamination. She was an environmental lab owner who was particularly vocal about protecting poor African-American communities. Before she was charged and prosecuted, White had spent much of her time volunteering for an organization she had co-founded to help these Mississippians contend with pollution.

Although White, who is 57, had spent years closely involved with dramatic cases that stood out even in a state with more than its share of the country’s industrial pollution — two of which in particular resulted in severe harm to many people and millions of dollars in cleanup costs — White’s prosecution wasn’t obviously related to any of these incidents. Indeed, the crime White had been convicted of didn’t seem to have any environmental consequences at all.

End of quote.

Two things draw me to this Intercept article by Sharon Lerner:

We now have a widespread practice of prosecuting people who come forth as whistleblowers, in any area of life. The message is clear. Blow the whistle on abuse and corruption at your own risk – of prosecution and certainly of employment. This has long been thus but, it seems to me, this has become far more comprehensive in the last decade or so.

Secondly, pollution inevitably goes hand in hand with industrial development, whether it be in manufacturing or whether it be where the raw materials are dug out of the ground. Some of this pollution is very obvious, such as the polluted rivers of Africa or the air of Beijing, but much of it is hidden.

Here is another quote from the article:

In the mid-1980s, within a few years of founding the Maranatha Faith Center, Jamison was searching for a new building to accommodate his growing congregation. When he heard that a stone-faced A-frame church, complete with pews and stained-glass windows, was for sale on the north side of Columbus, Mississippi, he jumped at the chance.

Kerr-McGee Chemical Corporation was a giant energy and chemical company perhaps best known for operating the nuclear power plant where Karen Silkwood was poisoned by plutonium. But Jamison hadn’t seen the Meryl Streep movie about Silkwood when he bought the church. He knew the company simply as the owner of the factory just down the road. He didn’t even know what the plant made.

That changed in 1999, when Jamison decided to add a sanctuary onto his building to accommodate his growing congregation. His first step was to remove a culvert from the parking lot of the property so they could lay the foundation. Having worked many years in construction, Jamison didn’t hesitate to get down in the ditch with his crew. After only a few hours of digging, a strange, greasy jelly began to accumulate in the ditch. It looked like shiny beads, droplets that would ooze up from the soil. And as he and his crew dug deeper, more of it pooled in the dirt.

Jamison called the city, which sent a worker to investigate, who advised him that the goo was likely creosote, and that Jamison ought to call Kerr-McGee. Jamison did and soon one of the plant’s managers arrived at the site. “He said, ‘Well, that’s not our product,’” Jamison recently recalled. “And if it was, it wouldn’t hurt you.”

The plant had been using creosote, an oily mixture made with coal tar, as well as a toxic compound called pentachlorophenol, to preserve the wood of railroad ties since 1928, which also happens to be around the time that scientists were publishing the first studies linking creosote and cancer. Kerr-McGee acquired the plant from a company called Moss American in 1963. By the mid-1980s, Kerr-McGee was the country’s second largest supplier of railroad ties. By the time the manager was paying his visit to Jamison, it was clear that contact with creosote could cause kidney and liver problems, chemical burns, convulsions, and even death. That same year, in a groundwater monitoring report Kerr-McGee was required to file with the state and EPA as a result of earlier contamination, it measured several toxic components of creosote at dangerous levels on its property near Jamison’s church. One, napthalene, which is thought to cause anemia, cataracts, and cancer, was present at 25 times the drinking water level set by the EPA.

But Jamison knew little about railroad ties or chemicals, so he took the Kerr-McGee man at his word. He and his small crew returned to work, digging farther down and unearthing more and more of the weird, oily substance. Several weeks later, the plant manager called again, according to Jamison. “This time, he said, ‘We want to be a good neighbor. Would you mind if we came over and just removed that debris from the culverts so you can use them easily?’”

Jamison accepted the offer. But to his dismay the Kerr-McGee crew arrived wearing hazmat suits. He and his workers had just spent more than a month in direct contact with what he finally understood to be a dangerous substance — wearing no protection. Several members of the crew had already developed skin rashes and breathing problems. Jamison himself had begun to feel unwell while he was digging.

“Before I went into that ditch to work, I had perfect blood pressure, I had good kidneys,” said Jamison. “After six weeks of direct exposure, I came out, and my blood pressure was being controlled by four pills two times a day, and my kidneys were functioning at less than a third of their normal function.”

End of quote.

For every one of these stories that is written about or has a movie like Erin Brockovich made about it, there are, perhaps, a thousand others we never hear about. And this is true across the globe. Perhaps countries like New Zealand, Australia and some South American countries see it less and Eastern European, the United States, African countries and China see it more, it is pretty much everywhere, and our bodies and those of other living things are simply not designed to cope with it.

These problems will not, in my opinion, get resolved, like so many other issues, within the consciousness that created them.

Richard

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