When autumn comes to Locust Hill, it comes with the sweetness of ripened fruit. I think of arms full of ripe apples. But also, of a yellow jacket or two buzzing about a fallen peach. The afternoons are often hot, and there is an anxiety on the farms to get everything done, an instinctive, even prehistoric drive to prepare against a time of famine before it’s too late. The days are now too short and the work still too long. Indian summers appear to help the harvesters from time to time but vanishes again overnight as the temperature drops in the darkness of the Ohio Valley’s fog-bound autumn nights.
Soon the summer’s long and often oppressive humidity abates. Air and land both become dry. Then even the urgency of work is trimmed by a newly felt comforts: a time of rewards come due and justly taken, of harvests gathered and enjoyed. The nights become shrouded in a dense white wrap of fog as the mists of the Ohio River and its local tributaries rise to meet the chilled night air. The mornings are blinding white with fog backlit by the sun until its heat finally removes the valley’s white veil, leaving just its heavy dews dripping in the eaves and from the by now nearly bare branches of the trees. The dew seeps into the now resting soil.
Later, in November, rains return. Whatever was left undone now becomes doubly hard to finish. Mud is everywhere. Even the tractors slide this way and that as their operators attempt to complete their tasks. Most of the days as well as all of the nights turn colder, and the skies are mostly cloudy by then with moisture brought down from the Great Lakes by the northwest wind. Occasionally, the sun returns, bidden by warm winds from the south that lift the moisture into the air again. But then a sudden shift in the wind brings back the clouds and comforts quickly end. If conditions are just right, the cold northwest wind can trap some last lingering humid air still rising from the south, turn it to crystal, and send it floating down as early snow. One such time produced the epic Thanksgiving blizzard of 1950 about which each family in Locust Hill still tells its own legends. But mostly the end of autumn brings us beauty, bounty, thanks, and rest from summer’s toil.
By the thirty-fifth year of our marriage, Jim and I had been exceptionally blessed. The children were now all grown and successful in their own right; the Russell Farm Alliance was highly regarded by its customers as a reliable, top quality supplier of produce; and our finances were greater and sounder than we ever thought possible. Truth to tell, we were comfortably wealthy, although we continued to live in the same modest house we’d built on Washington Road. We had the additional satisfaction of seeing our partners in the Russell Farm Alliance succeed as well.
But success was accompanied by loss. The previous year Jim’s mom had died of liver cancer, a relatively brief but painful illness that shook us all, especially Sandie, who had provided as much as she could of her mother’s nursing care. My parents were still alive then, but within another five years we lost them as well. First, my mom developed dementia, which rapidly progressed past the point at which my father could care for her. The expense of placing her in a nursing home consumed Mom and Dad’s savings as quickly as the dementia had consumed my mother’s mind. Although her death was in many ways a relief for Dad, the strain of it and the resulting loneliness left him broken too. One day he didn’t answer my phone, a call I made daily to check on him. When I went to the house, I found him dead. “Heart attack” the hospital physician put on his death certificate. Perhaps so, but also fatigue, loneliness, emptiness—all of these I thought had torn away at him, bit by bit.
When we thought that all our hardships had passed, a new and entirely unexpected one suddenly appeared. Late one autumn morning Jim and I were on our way home from a visit to the Brenneman farm when we decided to stop in at the general store there that also contained a small post office. I needed postage stamps to mail checks to some of our vendors. After purchasing the stamps, I stepped into the merchandise side of the establishment and found Jim in close conversation with one of the river bottom farmers, Will Clement. Will was a long-time friend of ours, though not a member of the Alliance since he raised beef cattle rather than produce. This day he had a look of utter despair on his face and was imploring Jim to come look at a problem on his farm.
“You won’t believe it, Jim. I’ve never seen anythin’ like it before. There’s dead cows all over. Dyin’ faster than I can bury ‘em, even usin’ the backhoe. An’ fore they die, they seem to go blind, stumblin’ round in a panic, and like as not, they’re in great pain too. Leastways they seem to be. Some of ‘em have black teeth. I’m tellin’ you, Jim, it’s the awf’lest thing I ever seen. I’d be mighty obliged if you’d come with me and take a look.”
“But, Will, you know I’m no expert in cattle. You need Doc Willis to examine your cows.”
“Done called him. Just now did it. He’s comin’ out as fast as he can, soon as he finishes lookin’ at somebody’s pet poodle that’s got a tumor. Then I come over here when I saw you and Cassie drive by . . . Hey, Cassie, I’m tryin’ hard as I can here to steal your husband for a bit, but you’re sure welcome to come too, if you want. But I warn you, it’s an evil sight. Completely evil!”
“What on earth are you talking about, Will?” I asked. “What’s evil? The devil move in next to you and Gretchen?”
“Might be worse’n that, Cassie. Can’t say for sure just yet. But I got cows adyin’ on the north side of my farm, down by the creek. And it all started right after I sold a parcel o’ land to FluoroSci an’ they went an’ put in a landfill there. Said it was all harmless stuff they was aputtin’ in it. All solid waste and harmless, they told me. Don’t seem so harmless now. Wish you all would come with me . . . just to take a look. Maybe see somethin’ I ain’t seein’.”
Will seemed very distraught by now, his voice breaking with emotion. “Don’t expect you to do nothin’, really I don’t. Just want somebody else to see it. An’ to be honest about it, I just need somebody t’ be with me right now, somebody tuh talk to me. Never been up agin anything like this before, not in fifty years of farmin’. No sir, nothin’ like it. Do you two mind tuh go with me?
“Of course, we’ll go, Will. We don’t mind, do we, Cassie?” Jim said while putting one hand on Will’s shoulder and the other on mine.
“Heavens no, let’s get going before Doc Willis beats us there,” I said as I turned and headed for the truck while grabbing Jim’s hand.
We followed Will over to his farm, no more than a quarter mile away, land that had been in his family since the mid-1800s. We clambered out of the truck and followed him across the pasture toward the creek that was lined with willows whose yellow and orange leaves littered the ground and floated in the creek. We hadn’t gone far before the stench of death reached out to us from across the field. Moreover, it combined with another odor, unnatural and strongly pungent, similar to chlorine, that seemed to come from the nearby creek. It reminded me a bit of bleach or swimming pool chemicals. Instead of masking the smell of morbidity, it seemed to enhance it.
We had no more than reached the area where the dead cattle lay when Will called out, “Look, there goes another one, damnation!” A young bawling cow was staggering across the field, close enough for us to see blood and mucous streaming from its nostrils and a heavy flow of saliva coming from its mouth. After careening about for no more than twenty yards or so, the cow collapsed, bawled again as though in great pain, and then went silent. “Just like the others I seen,” cried Will. With that he doubled over and knelt down on the earth with his face in his great sun-burnt hands, weeping. Jim and I went to him, raised him up, and held him close between us.
“I’m ruined!” he cried with a voice constricted nearly to a whisper by his pain. “And these cattle are sufferin’ so, an’ nothin’ I can do ‘bout it. I’m ruined—all cause I sold that damn little piece of land to FluoroSci. God forgive me! Land we’d owned forever. I knew I shouldn’t have done it. I just knew it! But we needed the money, Gretchen and me. Farmin’s got so hard here. Jim and Cassie, you know that yourselves. So damned hard!” Will was shaking with emotion now.
We did our best to comfort him, but Will wanted to keep talking, to spill everything out of him, as though by words alone he could expel some dreadful poison that was retching his spirit. “Nothin’ is gonna be the same. Nothin’.” Then Will concentrated on regaining his composure for a moment before he continued. “Jim and Cassie, now I want to tell you somethin’ and it’s an awful thing to behold. Yesterday I cut one of them cows open before I buried it. Its innards had turned green, I swear it, bright green! Like the green in a neon sign! I swear it’s so. Now what do you make of that? It’s unnatural I tell you—completely unnatural! Not of this world nowhere, let alone Locust Hill!”
“I’m not sure what to make of it, Will. Certainly not like anything I’ve ever seen or even heard of, but it’s something that Doc Willis needs to see for sure. You’ll tell him about that when he gets here, won’t you?” Jim advised.
“Oh, I will, you bet I will. And another thing I’m gonna do is sue that damn FluoroSci. They lied to me. Said they was agoin’ to put nothin’ harmful on this land, only harmless solid waste. That’s what they said. That sign right over there says so, too.” Will pointed over toward the creek. On the opposite bank was indeed an official looking sign. “And that sign says that the state agrees to it, but just looka here. Look at this damn mess! Who would do a thing like this to his neighbor? And to these poor dumb animals? That’s what I want to know, who would do a thing like this? Somebody had to know what they was adoin’!”
We then walked toward the creek, a stream about four or five feet wide at most, that flowed through the north side of Will’s farm then into the Ohio River. Its water was blackish with a green froth floating on it here and there and strewn this day with fallen yellow willow leaves. Into the creek seeped a greenish affluent from a drainpipe projecting from the hummock of the FluoroSci landfill, and next to the pipe on a metal sign pole was the state landfill permit for non-hazardous material that Will had pointed to. Also along the shallow banks of the stream were the carcasses of deer and raccoons, perhaps other animals that I couldn’t make out, maybe even a coyote and a fox or a farm dog. Clearly something terrible was happening here.
Then Jim pointed toward the road. “Will, look! Here comes Doc Willis now.” As Will and I turned to look, Doc was already parking his truck next to ours and presently came striding across the pasture toward us, carrying his familiar black satchel, moving as though he were still a young man, despite his seventy plus years, a lifetime spent in service to the local farmers and their livestock.
After an exchange of greetings with Doc, Jim said, “Cassie and I’ll leave you with Doc now, Will, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to call you this evening, just to follow up. To see if you two could come up with anything.”
“No, I don’t mind you to call at all, Jim. Fact is, I’d really appreciate it. And thanks for coming out here with me, you and Cassie both.” Will seemed to have recovered himself a bit at the sight of Doc Willis, who by now was examining the young cow that had just died.
“Okay, Will, let’s go see this problem,” said Doc resolutely. With that, Doc followed Will to look at the dead cattle, angling first toward the one that had just fallen, while Jim and I headed back to our truck.
On the way home, I asked, “What do you think has happened, Jim? What could possibly be causing this—those cattle suffering like that—and deer too? Maybe even other animals that we didn’t see. I’m nearly sure I saw a dead coyote alongside the creek.”
“I thought I saw the coyote, too, Cassie. Whatever this is, it must be a strong toxin. And it must be coming from that landfill since it was put in not all that long ago. That’s the only thing that makes sense. My guess is this has something to do with a fluorine or chlorine compound.”
“Oh, I had the same thought, Jim, because of the smell, but tell me why you think that?”
“The green color in the seepage and inside the animals. And, as you just said, that strange chemical smell. Fluorine compounds can be very persistent; I think that’s the term chemists use.”
“Well, you remember more from chemistry class than I do. But speaking of the landfill, why do you suppose FluoroSci wanted one on Will’s land? They have a plenty big campus of their own here round their factory. Unless . . .”
“Can’t say for sure, but I’m afraid it may be because they no longer have room on their own campus.”
“Exactly what I was about to say. And if that’s the case, then they may have been landfilling whatever this stuff is for some time near the plant. And if that is true, our next concern has to be, has this stuff—whatever it is—gotten into the local ground water, which along the river here is not all that deep?”
“Whoa, Cassie, now you’re getting into some dangerous thoughts! But you could very well be right. I sure hope you’re not, though! But if you are, we’ve all been drinking toxic water—and irrigating our crops with it to boot.” Then he paused before adding, “Oh, but surely not. No one in Locust Hill is suffering like Will’s cows.”
“You mean no one we know of. The ground would filter out much of the pollutant, whatever it is, before it gets into the aquafer, while Will’s poor cows are drinking the undiluted stuff from the creek as it drains from that landfill.”
“Well, if you’re right about this, Cassie, we’ll all have some serious actions to take in order to protect ourselves and our customers as well as our business.”
“You bet we will. So, I’m anxious to find out what Doc Willis has to say about all this.”
That evening Jim called Will Clement as he had promised to do. I tried to follow their conversation but couldn’t really make out anything that Will was saying. But when Jim hung up the phone, he seemed more concerned than ever.
“Doc Willis also guesses it’s a fluorine substance. He took a water sample from the stream as well as from the seepage and is going to have the two samples checked by a lab that he uses, along with some green tissue from one of the dead cows. In the meantime, he’s advised Will to move his remaining cattle away from the creek below the landfill and put up a temporary fence there to keep the wildlife away too. Will has already moved his other cattle but says he can’t afford to put even a temporary fence along both sides of the creek. Can’t say that I’m surprised about that. It’s probably 200 yards from the landfill to the river. Maybe more. That would take some time and work as well as money. Right now, he’s using rolls of hay to barricade the area as much as he can and has put out some extra water troughs. So maybe you heard me advise him to contact the state wildlife agency for help, at least with the danger to wildlife part of the problem. After all, it’s not just his cattle that are dying. The state needs to know about this right away. Also, Doc Willis wrote down the landfill permit information; he’s contacting the state about that; probably done it by now.”
“So, a lot’s going on, thankfully. Doc Willis thinks this stuff is some kind of poisonous fluorine substance then?”
“Correct. And I think that as soon as we can put a name to whatever it is, we need to contact a testing lab ourselves and have all of our wells tested—no matter what the cost. Maybe some spot checks on the crops too if that can be done.”
“Okay, sounds like a good idea. In the morning I’ll start checking on testing labs. My guess is we’ll need to find one in Columbus or Cincinnati or maybe Pittsburgh. I’ll use a computer search to find the nearest one. But wait a second! Something else just now occurred to me, Jim.”
“What’s that, honey?”
“You said ‘wells.’ And just who has the biggest, most important wells in Locust Hill?”
“. . . Oh God help us, Cassie—the Water District!”
“Exactly, and their wells, if I’m not mistaken, are right along the river. In fact, not all that far from Will’s farm—and that landfill.”
“If your suspicion is right, there’s going to be big trouble in Locust Hill.”
“Jim, I think there already is. It’s just that nobody realizes it yet.”
By noon the next day, Jim had met with Will and Doc Willis at Doc’s office next to the Co-op. Doc’s lab contacts had identified the substance in the seepage as a PFOA, short for perfluorooctanoic acid. And not surprisingly, the same substance was also in the creek water, and more importantly, in the dead cattle. That information didn’t leave much doubt about the source of the toxin. Also, Will had been right about the landfill permit; it was only for non-hazardous solid waste, something that shouldn’t even require a drainage pipe.
“So now what do you think’s going to happen?” I asked.
“Find us a testing lab we can trust, Cassie. And fast!”
Although I had to make ten calls, by noon I had finally arranged for the testing with a young man, at least he sounded young on the phone, at VeriLabs in Columbus. He was the only person I had spoken with who was not only willing to do the work, but seemed eager to do it since, he noted ominously, it had the potential of being a major public health issue. In fact, he said that he would personally drive over from Columbus before the end of the week to collect samples for the lab tests if we would provide him with local transportation to the sampling sites. I quickly agreed.
Surprisingly, before noon the next day the VeriLabs representative arrived. Peter Schmidt was indeed a young man, not yet thirty but quickly closing in on his PhD in chemistry at Ohio State and already putting his knowledge to effective use as a full-time employee of VeriLabs, a fact that was advertised on his beige polo shirt by a green oval patch displaying a blue retort with “VeriLabs” stitched in red below it. Jim and I had an opening conference with Peter during which we recounted for him all that we had witnessed at Will Clement’s farm and what Doc Willis had found out from his lab service about the substance coming from the landfill. Before we finished telling Peter about Will’s situation, JJ and Nathan also joined us. Then Sammy arrived from his law office in town. Catherine had agreed to check with us later since she had patient appointments most of the day. And Carolyn, of course, was busy teaching her second graders.
After listening attentively and scratching some notes on a yellow pad in his black vinyl VeriLabs portfolio, Peter Schmidt was ready to announce some conclusions:
“What you are telling me is consistent with a class of substances known as PFOAs, just as your friend Doctor Willis indicated. This family of substances is used by various industrial firms, including FluoroSci. I’ve already checked on that point. In fact, FluoroSci uses a lot of PFOAs and has done so at this site for a long time, probably more than forty years. The desirable properties of PFOA are that it’s not water soluble and so makes surfaces treated with it very slick and water or stain repellent. Its undesirable properties are that it’s both toxic and carcinogenic even in exceedingly small quantities—quantities measured in less than one part per billion—and, worst of all, that it is also very bio-persistent.”
Nathan was the first to react. “One part per billion! How can you even detect such a small trace—say, in a glass of water?”
“Not easily, but we can. The real problem comes not in detection but in knowing just where the thresholds are for toxicity and carcinogenic effect in human beings and animals. Presumably, the threshold for carcinogenic effects will be more stringent since the effects are not so immediate and will occur as PFOA accumulates in the body, which it will do since it is bio persistent. So far, the EPA has not established thresholds at all for PFOA exposure, but I believe we can discover useful ones from private research that has already been done. I have some colleagues looking into that right now based on what you told me over the phone, Mrs. Russell.”
“Wait a minute,” said JJ. “If this compound is both toxic and carcinogenic, why hasn’t the EPA already set guidelines for its safe use, including the thresholds you just mentioned? After all, FluoroSci’s products are used all over the world.”
“That’s because existing environmental laws do not require all substances to be tested before being put into use, even if the substance is completely man-made, like PFOAs. I know that seems absurd, especially with respect to public health, but it’s true. If we do find contamination in your water, the same contamination is likely to be in the supplies of your local blood bank as well.”
At that we all shook our heads in anguish and anger—all that is except Sammy.
“He’s right,” Sammy joined in. “For the most part, environmental laws have been drafted so as not to discourage business rather than protect the public. It’s more a matter of politics and money than public health.”
Now it was my turn. “Maybe I’m just slow, Peter, but help me understand this problem. So, a company can create a completely new substance, such as this PFOA stuff, a totally artificial substance not naturally occurring anywhere in the world. And then begin using it without testing its effects on human beings or animals or the environment? And never submit it to the EPA for testing either? Am I correct in that?”
“That is correct, Mrs. Russell. Unfortunately, the EPA’s role in these matters right now is much more reactive than preventative.”
Then with great concern in his voice, Jim said, “But if our suspicions are correct, Peter, the aquafer here underneath Locust Hill might be poisoned this very moment and consequently may be affecting the water in all of our homes and businesses, both for those families using private wells, as we do in our fields, as well as for the customers of our Locust Hill Water District service, which we also have here in the house.”
“I understand your concern, Mr. Russell, and it’s completely valid. That’s why immediate testing is so important. Do you know how the Water District currently filters or treats the water before distributing it?”
“I’m not sure, but I’ll find out. I know they do test the water; however, I don’t know for what,” Jim added.
“No doubt they test for bacterial contamination; that’s typical for rural water districts, especially if there are a lot of septic systems in the area. I noticed that you have quite a few newer homes out this way. The water district probably treats the water for bacteria, but I seriously doubt that they would even think to test for PFOAs. Nobody would, unless someone at FluoroSci told them to do it,” Peter explained. “The worst part of all is that PFOA is very bio-persistent, as I mentioned earlier. That is, it does not degrade much at all over time. We think that it stays in the human body with a half-life of over four years, after exposure has stopped, meaning that it stays in an affected person’s bloodstream and tissues for a long, long time. Of course, if the exposure is ongoing, then the PFOA doesn’t just last, it builds up in the bloodstream, going to all parts of the body. That’s why it can trigger carcinogenic reactions after it reaches a threshold level. It can especially attack the kidneys, even though kidney cancer is rare otherwise.”
“Really!” Jim exclaimed. “My mother died of kidney cancer a few years ago.”
“Was her blood ever checked for PFOA,” Peter asked.
“No, I’m sure that it wasn’t” Jim answered.
“Likewise,” Peter continued, “in males PFOA can cause testicular cancer, which is also rare without PFOA exposure. If the exposure rate is high enough, as it obviously was for Mr. Clement’s cattle, then, of course, its toxicity would cause death long before cancers could ever have a chance to develop.”
“This sounds absolutely awful, Peter.” I couldn’t help but interrupt him. “This stuff sounds like the chemical equivalent of radioactive waste or even worse! But then what we saw at Will’s farm truly was awful.”
“I’m sure that’s true. So here is what I think we should do now,” Peter said as he looked at each of us in turn and then glanced at his wristwatch. “First, we should test all the water sources you are currently using on your farms and in your homes to see if there is any PFOA contamination, just as Mrs. Russell and I discussed on the phone. The sampling should include your water district tap water as well as samples from all your private farm wells. And we need to be absolutely accurate in labeling the sources of the samples, the dates, and the times. I’ll do all that, of course. Also, do you think that Mr. Clement will allow us to re-sample his creek water, if only to verify the results that Doctor Willis’s lab service obtained? Then we could check those samples against what we find in your wells and tap water.”
“Oh, I’m sure he will,” Jim replied. “He’s eager to help—and be helped. Also, Peter, don’t forget that we want to check our crops for contamination. Can you do that?”
“Yes, I was coming to that part. I believe the crops that have the highest water content, such as lettuces or watermelon, are the most susceptible to this contamination, unless you know better. Root crops like carrots, potatoes, and beets are probably going to be okay, but we can check them too, if you wish. Crops like green beans and peas should fall somewhere between the other two types, I’d think. But in all cases with produce, there should be a natural filtering effect in the soil due to the large molecular structure of PFOAs.”
This concept of natural filtration puzzled me so I asked, “Can you explain that point some more, Peter?”
“Sure, Mrs. Russell. Because the PFOA molecule is so large, it won’t be readily absorbed from the soil water by crops. There is likely to be a natural filtering, but I can’t be certain of this yet. You see, there is still a lot we don’t know about PFOAs.”
“Well, hopefully your conjecture is correct, Peter. In any case, we’ll provide a full set of all crop types for you,” Jim was quick to say. “We have no watermelons left from this season, but we do have lettuce from several locations. And lots of potatoes.”
“That’ll be fine. Of course, all this testing is going to be expensive, as I mentioned on the phone. I’m estimating between $5000 and $5500, but we will expedite the results at no extra cost since public health is almost certainly at stake in this case. I already have approval for expediting. If we can collect all the samples today, I’ll leave for Columbus this evening and get started on the testing first thing tomorrow with results to report before the end of next week. I have some lab techs already lined up for the testing. Will that schedule work for you?”
“We’ll make it work. The sooner, the better,” Jim responded firmly. “I want to be able to talk with my customers before they hear about this problem in the news. And even more pressing than that, I want to go to the Water District—I know some of the board members, one in particular—to warn them. And if the results in the crops are bad—well, to be frank, that could mean the end of Russell Farms. We’d even have trouble selling the properties we own if the water is contaminated.”
“Yes,” Sammy added, “that’s definitely something we’d have to declare in a real estate sales contract.”
Peter nodded in agreement. “I’m sure that kind of news would not help property values hereabouts, but I can also tell you that it is possible to effectively filter PFOAs. As I said before, the molecule is quite large—C8HF15O2—meaning that a simple activated carbon water filter fitted on your inlet water lines and wells lines should effectively eliminate the contamination from reaching yourselves, your crops, and therefore your customers. Of course, these filters would add to your cost of doing business and, depending on the level of contamination, may need to be changed frequently. Typically, that’s every three months. Still, that may not make people feel comfortable enough to buy property in the area, but the filters are commonly available and not too expensive to maintain once they’re installed.”
“That’s the first good news I’ve heard in this whole matter!” Jim said with considerable relief in his voice. “The filtration cost is nothing compared to the cost of going out of business! Still, our property values will fall, and our customers will not want to have it known that they sell produce grown with contaminated water, even if the contaminates are filtered out.”
“If the aquafer proves to be contaminated and the water district draws from it, as I presume it does, then the water district will need to invest in a much more elaborate filtration system than it likely has now, and one that large won’t be cheap, in which case the water district should press FluoroSci to help with the cost—that is, if the company does prove to be the source of the pollution. After all, it’s unreasonable to expect all of the water district customers to purchase activated carbon filters.” With that declaration, Peter closed his portfolio and then paused for a moment. “One more thing. Where does the water from Mr. Clement’s creek go next?”
“Why, into the Ohio River,” Jim replied.
“Then there may be that a lot more places other than Locust Hill that have a contamination problem.” Peter’s voice now had an even more ominous tinge to it. Then he asked, “Well, can we go collect samples now?”
Just three days later Peter Schmidt had a report for us. All our wells except the one at the homestead farm showed PFOA contamination as did the water district sample. The food samples also showed the presence of PFOA, but even the high water content produce was at an insignificant level, probably owing to the infrequent need for irrigation and to the natural soil filtration process that Peter had identified.
Now that we had detailed information, our next action was to call Travis Lowery. At that time Travis was both the past President and current Vice President of the Locust Hill Farmers’ Cooperative and, more importantly at the moment, the current Chair of our Water District Board of Directors. Also, he had for a long time seen the Russell Farm Alliance as a threat to his family’s prestige in the community, since collectively Russell Farms was now much larger than his dairy business. Although his farm was somewhat in decline by this time and certainly a lot smaller in acreage than what we had assembled for Russell Farms, he still paraded about, as his father had done for years, in a white linen suit and white Panama hat with a bright red band, playing the part of a Southern gentleman. He still saw his family, leaders in the local Baptist Church, as historical social rivals to the Catholic Russells and Freddy’s family, the Methodist Cunninghams, who had been in full retreat socially as well as economically for some time.
But, to his credit, Travis was also quick to lend his name, energy, and money to various community fund raisers. For these activities he had become a local folk hero. We fully expected resistance from him but knew his help would be essential in getting safe water for Locust Hill. After some grousing on the phone with Jim, he finally agreed to meet us that evening at the Co-op conference room.
Next Jim called our contacts at Kloss and Titan stores to alert them to the problem and assure them regarding the results of VeriLabs tests on our produce. When he finished with the calls, he came to my little office with an anxious look on his face.
“Cassie, the buyer at Titan is satisfied with the actions we’re taking and thanked me for calling him, but the Kloss buyer wants me to come to Cincinnati right away—to meet with him and his boss first thing tomorrow morning. I think they are worried more about other growers downstream from FluoroSci than about us and so want to know more about the problem. In order to meet with them, though, I’ll have to leave right away. And that means I can’t meet with Travis Lowery. Could you . . .”
I interrupted him, “Leave Travis to me, Jim. You go to Cincinnati and take care of our business there; I’ll stay here and take care of the community business with Travis. Have no doubt about that.”
“But you know how stubborn Travis can be.”
“Yes, and you know by now how determined I can be, don’t you?”
“Oh yes, dear, I do,” he said with some relief in his voice. “It’s just that I hate to put that burden on you so suddenly—or even at all. I never thought . . .”
“Go!” I interrupted him again. “Get yourself to Cincinnati and then get some rest there so that you’ll be fresh and alert tomorrow morning for your meeting. No river boat rides and no Cincinnati beer! That meeting’s important to us. And don’t worry about Travis; I’ll handle him.”
“I always knew you were a great partner!” Jim replied. With that, a warm embrace, and a gentle kiss, Jim went to get his luggage packed. After he was on his way, I called Sammy at his law office and got some advice on how to handle the meeting with Travis Lowery.
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)