When I arrived at the Co-op conference room that evening, Travis was already there. His white Panama lay to his right on the long walnut conference table. His normally ruddy skin seemed even more flushed than normal under the room’s fluorescent lights. He sat squarely with both hands on the table, papers scattered about him, the fingers of both hands drumming a nervous rhythm on the table. He didn’t rise when I entered. Instead, he just stared at me as I walked across the room to his side of the table, which seem to surprise him.
“Where’s Jim?” he finally asked, now staring past me at the door as though he still expected Jim to enter the room. “Isn’t he coming? What’s wrong?”
The evening had turned quite cool and so I had worn a pair of leather gloves, which I now stripped off my hands and slapped on the table beside some papers of my own that I had brought. “Good evening, Travis,” I said deliberately as I chose a seat beside him rather than across the table as I might otherwise have done. “No, Jim can’t be here. He’s sorry about that, but he’s been called to Cincinnati for an important meeting tomorrow morning with the head of purchasing for Kloss stores, so he had to leave right away.” I glanced at my watch. “He should be there by about now, in fact. The Kloss Company is quite concerned about this problem, as we all should be.” I now took off my leather jacket and hung it on the back of the chair beside mine before sitting down.
“Oh yes—good evening, Cassandra. Forgot my manners, sorry.” Travis had to turn his chair a bit to his left to look me in the face. “Sorry to be so abrupt, too. But, dammit, Jim’s call has me all upset. How can you all be so sure that there even is a problem? This is a terrible thing to be saying about our community. Who else knows about this so-called poisoning, contamination, or whatever the hell it’s supposed to be?” Normally, Travis never cursed.
“To answer your first question, we can be so sure because we just spent several thousand dollars of our own money having our water tested. So, we now have scientific evidence of the poisoning in both the well water we pump at our farms and in the tap water we draw in our homes from the Water District lines—all of it water we use to grow crops to feed people all over Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and God-only-knows where else. And it’s the same water we all drink, cook with, and bathe in. So, by now it’s a documented problem, not an alleged one.”
With that declaration, I handed Travis a copy of the VeriLabs reports, neatly bound in a plastic cover. Reluctantly, he took them, glanced at them briefly without really reading anything, it seemed, and then placed them on the table under his right arm.
“As for who knows,” I continued, “we learned about the problem by visiting Will Clement’s farm last week, at his request. His cattle are dying, Travis, dying left and right from drinking creek water that appears to be contaminated by drainage from a FluoroSci landfill that was supposed to be for non-hazardous dry material.”
“Yes, I heard about that. Jim mentioned that on the phone. But how do you know that FluoroSci is causing the problem? How can you be sure of that?”
“Three reasons—first, the problem wasn’t there before the landfill and now it is. Second, the substance causing the poisoning is one used by FluoroSci and, so far as we know, by no one else in our area—a substance known as PFOA. And third, this PFOA shows up both in the creek water, the seepage from the landfill, and the dead cattle—as those reports clearly show.” I pointed to the lab reports he had just ignored.
“Nonsense!” Travis retorted instantly, slapping his right hand on the VeriLabs reports. “As soon as I hung up with Jim this afternoon, I called my contacts at FluoroSci. People I’ve known for years. Why some of them even helped us set up this water district and know more about these kinds of things than anyone. They’re experts, professionals, and I’m sure they wouldn’t lie to me. They assured me that there is no poisoning going on, and I believe them.”
“So, who are they?” I asked calmly. “Do these people have names?” I already knew he wouldn’t tell me the names.
“I won’t—I can’t—tell you their names. That would betray them to needless harassment by the news media and I won’t do that to them.”
“Well, I was just wondering if they might be the same people who told Will Clement that the landfill on his farm would be harmless. Do you suppose they are?” Travis didn’t answer, so I continued. “Anyhow, whoever they are, these professional experts, whatever their names, it’s likely that they’ve already betrayed you, the other board members, and all the rest of us in Locust Hill. Do you know what PFOA is and what it can do to people and animals, Travis?”
“It’s an industrial chemical. My contacts told me about it, but so what? What else is there to know? Lots of companies use industrial chemicals. For God’s sakes, Cassandra, Clorox is an industrial chemical, and if you use it incorrectly, it can hurt you. Yet I’m sure you use it yourself in your own home, so do we.”
“Yes, I do use Clorox, and I certainly know that it’s quite harmful if misused. So, I sure don’t drink it and I don’t cook with it or bathe in it. And I certainly don’t expect someone to be putting it into my drinking water and not telling me about it!”
Then I paused before resuming in a more subdued voice. “But Clorox, dangerous as it can be, can’t compare to PFOA. These reports,” I reached into Travis’s personal space to tap the reports with the painted blood red nail of my left forefinger, “they tell you what it can do to us—any of us—including your own family, Travis. It’s so toxic that less than one part per billion—per billion—can harm us! It builds up in a person’s body faster than it can be eliminated. In our case here in Locust Hill, that could be happening just from drinking district water. And eventually it reaches a level at which it causes cancers—affecting the stomach, intestines, liver, and testicles in men, Travis, and can cause serious birth defects in women. And then there’s the matter of Will Clement’s cattle, dying faster than he can bury them. You owe it to yourself to visit Will’s farm, Travis. To see the FluoroSci landfill, to talk to Will, and to see his sick cattle dying, very painfully.”
I was leaning toward him, not shouting, but being as honest and earnest and emphatic as I could. And I was staring straight into his eyes. He kept silent, staring back at me for a long silent moment.
Before he could speak, I resumed. “Travis, you can see the truth for yourself in these reports. Read them. Please, read them. Our sampling verifies that concentrations of this PFOA are in our tap water, at even higher levels than in our well water, probably because the water district’s wells are much closer to the FluoroSci landfill than our wells are. The levels are way above what may be harmful and so require remediation—and require it immediately.”
“What you’re saying proves nothing. I don’t know who these VeriLabs people are,” he scoffed as he shoved the reports back toward me.
I immediately pushed them back to him. “Are you telling me that you are willing to gamble with your family’s health, the health of everyone in the Locust Hill Water District, with your own health for that matter, because you want to believe that VeriLabs, an independent and objective testing firm, is wrong? Are you telling me that my health as one of your customers is of no concern to you?”
“Come on, Cassandra! Have you looked at yourself in a mirror lately? And I’m sure you have. You’re a beautiful woman, in perfect health. Men still fall all over themselves for you just as they always have. And just look how many kids you and Jim have had! Five kids, for God’s sakes. And all of them are healthy too, aren’t they? No birth defects. And Jim’s healthy, isn’t he?”
“Yes, the whole family is fine, health-wise. And thank you for the complement. Although Jim’s mother did die of a type of cancer that PFOA can cause. But, Travis, no one in my family works directly with PFOA. Even so, just by drinking district water over time, any person in Locust Hill could develop health problems—that’s what we fear may be happening without our realizing it. And if some women do get sick, or some men do, or—God forbid—if any of our children or grandchildren do, and it becomes known that you knew about this problem and still did nothing, it won’t just be FluoroSci that people around here will blame—and sue—it’ll be you as well as the other board members.”
“And just who is going to tell them these lies? You? Are you threatening me and the board? Do you think because you’re a beautiful woman that people will believe you and not us? Is that your strategy?”
I sat back in my chair, paused, and tried to remain calm. Then in a more composed voice I asked, “Now why would I do that, Travis? What would motivate me to do that? What am I personally going to gain from doing it? I’ve already ordered carbon filters for my family’s homes and for our farm wells. We’re going to take care of our problem, despite the extra expense, because we know we can’t afford not to. Everyone else in Locust Hill needs to be doing the same thing, once you tell them about the problem, that is.”
“Me tell them! Now why would I do that? It’d cause a panic.”
“A panic to do what? Buy drinking water? Buy carbon filters? That’s exactly what our citizens need to do and do quickly while you and the other board members convince FluoroSci to provide an effective filtration system for the water district. There is a practical remedy available, but people can’t apply it if they don’t even know they have a problem. So, you must tell them!”
“No, I’m not just talking about buying a bunch of water filters. I’m talking about people losing their jobs and losing the value in their homes and properties. Suppose a panic does develop over this and the government ends up closing the FluoroSci plant. Think of what that would do to this community, its future, and to our property values, including the values of your own farms, I might add! Have you and Jim thought about that, Cassandra?”
“Of course, we have. So, if livelihoods are at stake, then lives themselves don’t matter, is that it? Is that your opinion? Is that what you’re telling me? Listen to me, Travis. What needs to happen is this: If what we strongly suspect right now proves to be true, then FluoroSci needs to assume responsibility for the problem it has caused and fix that problem and fix it fast. I don’t think that’s asking too much. I’m afraid the impact on property values is inevitable once the problem becomes public knowledge, which it soon will. Nothing can be done about that now. But there will be a much worse result if you do nothing. And if doing nothing is what you choose, then the public’s trust in you and the Water Board will be completely broken. Eventually, the problem will be known anyway when Will files his lawsuit against FluoroSci as he swears he will—and likely even sooner than that just through rumors. And that will happen whether Will is eventually proven right or wrong in court. So, isn’t it better that you and the other board members provide the public with reliable, truthful information now before rumors fill the void with half-truths that might be even worse than the real truth and cause an unnecessary panic based on wild exaggerations?”
By now, Travis’s previously ruddy face had become nearly as white as his suit. The truth he’d been resisting so hard was beginning to overtake him.
So, then I started my peroration. “Travis, you asked who knows. I already told you about Will Clement. But Doc Willis also knows because of attending to Will’s cattle and having his own tests done. He also suspects that the substantial number of tumors he’s seen in pets lately may owe to this same problem. And by now he’s called the state about the landfill drainage and its impact of wildlife. I know that much for certain. So, if the state knows, then soon the EPA will know. And if the EPA knows, soon the news media will know, and then everyone will know. And then they’re going to ask, ‘When did Travis know? And what did he do when he found out?’ Now I’ve known you for a long time, and I believe that I can trust you to do the right thing. Read those reports I gave you, Travis.” I pointed to them again. “Study them, but do it quickly, for it won’t be me that tells the press. Act now while you can still have some control over the situation.”
Travis bent over, put his face into his open hands, and rocked back and forth in his chair. “Oh God, how can this be happening? What will happen to us next?” he sobbed.
“You’re a good person, Travis,” I said softly, consolingly. “Everyone in Locust Hill respects you, just as I do. But when a crisis comes, we only get one chance to do the right thing, no matter who we are. Whatever good we’ve done before counts for nothing at that moment. It may not seem fair to us, but all that matters is what we do to meet the challenge.” I tapped him on the shoulder so that he took his head from his hands and raised it to look at me again. When he did, I pointed to the phone sitting at the end of the conference table. “And I know you’ll do the right thing tonight.”
With that, I pushed back my chair, put on my jacket, picked up my gloves, and started for the door. Travis had picked up the VeriLabs report and was looking down the long conference table toward the phone. Then, looking at me over his left shoulder, in a weakened voice he said, “Cassandra, should I share these reports with my FluoroSci contacts?”
I halted and turned back toward him. “Actually, Travis, I wish you would,” I replied rather sharply now with my hand on the doorknob. “That way they can’t later deny that they knew about the problem, at least not from this date on. So, if they continue to do nothing and allow the pollution to continue, their behavior will become criminal, not just negligent. I have that on the good authority of my lawyer son, Samuel.” Then more agreeably I added, “I’m sorry you have to deal with this, Travis, I really am, but no one can do it for you. And remember, a lot of people are counting on you tonight, even if they don’t know it yet. Good night.”
I continued through the door, but before I closed it, I could hear the scuffle of Travis’s chair and then the brief clatter of his steps on the tile floor. When I looked back into the room, he was standing at the end of the table, holding the phone in a visibly trembling hand while rapidly punching numbers with the other. I closed the door silently and left him.
Jim returned home early the next evening, quite exhausted from the stress of his travel and his meeting, but also quite relieved. The Kloss managers had grilled him rigorously regarding the details of the contamination and wanted assurances about any remedial actions, especially the effectiveness of the carbon filters. All Jim could do was promise to have new tests done after installing the filters and to share the results with them. Before he left, however, the Kloss managers also thanked him profusely for raising the problem so quickly. They assured him that, barring the discovery of any contaminated food, our business with Kloss stores was not in jeopardy and that, in fact, they would be checking with their other producers in our area who might be affected without realizing it, a possibility that was a key concern for their company. Like Peter Schmidt, they had thought far enough ahead to realize that the PFOA contamination might be downstream and might even be on both sides of the Ohio River. They also said that they would be talking with VeriLabs about using their services to monitor produce coming from the region.
Then I recounted for Jim the highlights of my meeting with Travis Lowery. “I think he’ll act responsibly,” I said, concluding my account, “but I can’t be so sure about his FluoroSci contacts. The pressure they’ll apply to him will no doubt be enormous.”
“Travis and the other water district board members are in a tough spot, that’s for sure,” Jim said, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes right now. But as the Co-op President, I just can’t let them do nothing. Do you think I should call Travis now, just to see how he’s feeling about this today?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t think so. He has to resolve this situation himself, and I think he’s concerned enough now that he’ll do it.”
“You’re a tough cookie, Cassandra Clark Russell. I’m glad you’re on my side!”
That evening, as we watched the local TV news, we discovered that Travis had indeed done something. The news featured a special announcement from the Locust Hill Water District Board to its customers:
The safety of LHWD water cannot be guaranteed at this time due to suspected contamination. Customers should either filter their water with activated carbon filters before use for drinking and cooking or use bottled water instead. Otherwise, avoid using LHWD water for cooking and drinking until further notice. Boiling the water is unnecessary and ineffective in treating the contamination problem and in fact may make it worse since the problem appears to be chemical rather than bacterial.
Even though the announcement did not identify what type of contamination was involved nor what caused it, by the next day the entire county was talking of little else and quite a few citizens had correctly guessed the identify of both the contaminant and its source. In short order, the local newspaper reported on the contamination in considerable detail, including interviews with Will and Travis. While Will was bombastic in his outrage against FluoroSci, as he had been with us, Travis was composed now, diplomatic and circumspect to the point of being somewhat cryptic, blaming no one and still being vague about the nature of the contamination while announcing that a central filtration system to remedy the problem would be installed for the Water District as soon as possible. Indeed, he said, the bidding process for the project was already underway.
Of course, as soon as we received our own filters, we immediately installed them at all our properties, including the homestead, and forwarded new samples to VeriLabs for testing. When the new tests showed the carbon filters to be completely effective, just as Peter Schmidt had predicted, Jim contacted each of our customers, starting with Kloss Stores, to tell them about the success of our remedial actions and forwarded to them copies of the test results. After that, life for us quickly went back to normal, except that checking and changing filters and sending samples to VeriLabs quarterly became part of our new business regimen.
As we began the new century, the PFOA crisis gradually metastasized into the trench warfare that so often characterizes the modern American legal system—a claim verified for me by my own son, Samuel. On his side, Will Clement remained adamant that FluoroSci must pay for all the damages he had experienced, including his considerable pain and suffering. He produced compelling pictures he had taken of the dead and dying cattle on his farm and the brackish effluent from the FluoroSci landfill. His attorney pressed the case relentlessly.
But on its side, FluoroSci continuously erected barriers that delayed progress on what was by now a barrage of lawsuits, some even filed by the company’s own employees, plus government investigations into alleged misconduct of the company with respect to handling and disposal of hazardous waste over an extended period of time, even years before the laws were enacted. Questions remained about whether that misconduct was intentional and therefore criminal or more simply tragic negligence. Either way, the outlook for FluoroSci was not favorable.
Each time Will’s attorney required documents about PFOA usage at FluoroSci’s facility, the company could find none. Then a judge would frown at the FluoroSci attorneys and suddenly thousands and thousands of documents would materialize, most of them intentionally irrelevant and intended, it seemed, to hide the few incriminating ones. Then the documents had to be researched, page by page, for references to PFOA. Days, weeks, months would go by with legal expenses mounting higher and higher. But gradually at least a partial truth about the poisoning emerged—enough to warrant the federal government assessing heavy fines against FluoroSci. Ironically, one particularly onerous fine was used to pay for the collection of additional evidence against the company. Local residents were paid to have their blood checked for PFOA contamination with the cost of the testing paid by FluoroSci. Most samples did in fact show traces of PFOA, including Jim’s and mine and those of our children and grandchildren. PFOA contamination was also detected in the local emergency blood bank supplies, again just as Peter Schmidt had suspected.
Evidence against FluoroSci gradually mounted, yet no conclusive blow was struck by the courts or by the news media. In our area, this story still plays in the background, even today after more than twenty years, although the daily news cycle has long since moved on to more current concerns and new crises in places more familiar to most Americans than our small portion of Appalachia.
Unfortunately, long before a resolution to his lawsuit could be reached, Will himself died of cancer. Though his cancer did not seem to be of a kind related to PFOA, most people familiar with the case nevertheless attributed his death to his protracted struggle against FluoroSci. Many whose livelihoods were derived from their work at the FluoroSci plant bitterly resented Will’s battle against their employer, a company that had provided them with some of the most financially desirable jobs in the county. Undoubtedly, FluoroSci provided its employees with homes, cars, medical coverage, college tuition, and financial security such as they could not have obtained anywhere else in our region.
But most of us nevertheless saw Will as a heroic man who loved his family, his land, his livestock, and his way of life—and moreover loved those things enough to fight to protect them with all of his energy and resources, despite the fierce opposition of some who had been his friends. Most other people, I believe, would simply have given up. All of us were saddened to think that our beautiful community—a land where once the Shawnee hunted, where English and Scotch-Irish and German farmers had settled to till the land and grow their crops and raise their families, the place where Jim and I had struggled not just to preserve but to expand a life of fields, farms, and woodlands—that land now sat on top of a poisoned lake. So, we, like every family in the Locust Hill Farmers’ Cooperative and the Russell Farms Alliance, when the time finally came, attended Will’s funeral.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
This chapter is based on the same factual case dealt with in the 2019 film Dark Waters, but whereas the film focuses on Attorney Rob Bilott’s investigation of the DuPont company, this novel focuses on the impact of the pollution on the community and offers no judgment regarding the actual case. The episode is also the subject of the 2018 documentary The Devil We Know. Locust Hill, however, has a U.S. registered copyright (TXu-2-081-614) issued on January 3, 2018, which predates both films. All the incidents and characters in this chapter and throughout the novel are fictional.
Carl Parsons, a former manufacturing manager for TRW Automotive, has had a secondary career as a college instructor of rhetoric and literature. Now retired, he serves as a Master Gardener for the University of Tennessee Extension office and contributes essays on botanical subjects to Hey, Smokies! (an online travel magazine). He has also served as associate editor for Heater, a crime fiction magazine. Currently, he is an active member of Scribophile online writers’ workshop. Born in Parkersburg, WV, he now resides in Kodak, TN. Publication Credits: • Crime Novella, Jukes, to be published in March 2020 by Dark Passages Publishing • Short story, “Judith and Phillip,” published by Foundling House (2019) • Short story, “Another Bus Ride for Sunny,” published by Spillwords Press (2019) • Two poems published with Literary Yard (2019) • Two poems published with Plum Tree Tavern (2019)