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Baptized in PCBs

Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 456
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  • Book Info
    Baptized in PCBs
    Book Description:

    In the mid-1990s, residents of Anniston, Alabama, began a legal fight against the agrochemical company Monsanto over the dumping of PCBs in the city's historically African American and white working-class west side. Simultaneously, Anniston environmentalists sought to safely eliminate chemical weaponry that had been secretly stockpiled near the city during the Cold War. In this probing work, Ellen Griffith Spears offers a compelling narrative of Anniston's battles for environmental justice, exposing how systemic racial and class inequalities reinforced during the Jim Crow era played out in these intense contemporary social movements.Spears focuses attention on key figures who shaped Anniston--from Monsanto's founders, to white and African American activists, to the ordinary Anniston residents whose lives and health were deeply affected by the town's military-industrial history and the legacy of racism. Situating the personal struggles and triumphs of Anniston residents within a larger national story of regulatory regimes and legal strategies that have affected toxic towns across America, Spears unflinchingly explores the causes and implications of environmental inequalities, showing how civil rights movement activism undergirded Anniston's campaigns for redemption and justice.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1559-2
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xx)
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION Toxic Knowledge
    (pp. 1-17)

    On February 22, 2002, an Alabama jury unanimously held the global agrochemical giant Monsanto and its corporate partners legally responsible for PCB contamination in the land and in the bodies of people who had lived near the company’s Anniston, Alabama, plant. The state court jury found Monsanto and its partner companies liable on six counts—“suppression of the truth, negligence, trespass, nuisance,” “wantonness,” and “outrage.” Alabama law interprets “outrage” as conduct “beyond all possible bounds of decency … atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society.” After just five and a half hours of deliberation, the jury decided that Monsanto had...

  6. CHAPTER ONE The Model City: A Romance of the New South
    (pp. 18-31)

    An 1883 display ad in Henry Grady’sAtlanta Constitutionproclaimed Anniston the healthiest place in the southern states. The “Best, Healthiest, and Most Invigorating Climate in the World” claimed the city’s founders and publicists. In Anniston could be found the “Three Essentials of a Good Home: Pure Air, Good Water, and a Salubrious Climate.” Nature itself invited industry, the city’s promoters implied. “Nature favors them marvelously,” wrote theNew York Times. The Baltimore-basedManufacturers Record, an industrial journal, boasted in 1889 that Anniston’s “mountain air and pure water … insure the health and comfort of the workman and his family;...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The War for Chemical Supremacy
    (pp. 32-52)

    John Francis Queeny opened the Monsanto Chemical Works next to the Diamond Match factory on the south side of St. Louis in 1901 at the dawn of “the Chemical Century.” Ambitious to take its place in an expansive vision for turn-of-the-century America, the new company used rapidly developing knowledge of chemical processes to create and fill an expanding market for synthetic organic chemicals.¹

    A son of Irish immigrants who lost their modest real estate holdings in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Queeny went to work at age twelve as an office and delivery boy for a drug company. He...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Monsanto’s Move “Down South”
    (pp. 53-77)

    Opal Scruggs was born in 1935, the year the Monsanto Chemical Company acquired Swann’s holdings and took over producing PCBs. Scruggs was born Opal Ferguson in a little white clapboard house in West Anniston, near where a Huddle House later stood. The Fergusons lived in the Mitchell Hill area, two miles west of downtown. Birmingham Highway was little more than a wagon road then, the Old Coldwater Road. The population of Anniston was about 22,000. By the time Opal was born, the chemical factory had been producing chlorinated biphenyls for half a dozen years. Two generations of Fergusons had worked...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR A Technological High Command
    (pp. 78-95)

    In July 1943, James W. Irwin, assistant to the president of the Monsanto Chemical Company, spoke at the Anniston Rotary Club Tuesday luncheon. “In every industrial field you will find the infiltration of this ever growing octopus—the chemical industry,” Irwin said. “Now the searchlight of war has brought out in bold relief the chemical meshes which support and reinforce all our modern industrial effort. How fortunate we are that this unobtrusive penetration took place over the past twenty years so that today it is strong enough to support the enormous pressure of war-time production!” Expressing a kind of chemical...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE War in a Time of Peace
    (pp. 96-118)

    Imogene and Grover Baker were already on a solemn mission on Mother’s Day, 1961. Returning from a funeral in Birmingham, the Bakers were driving down picturesque Highway 202 when they noticed smoke and flames up ahead, just outside Anniston. Coming closer, Imogene Baker could make out the silhouettes of passengers stumbling out of a vehicle, nearly blinded by the haze and fumes. “By the time we stopped, some of them were laying outside the bus and the bus was burning,” she said. She got out of the car to help. “My husband went up the road further and parked the...

  11. CHAPTER SIX The Nature of the Poison
    (pp. 119-146)

    In late May 1961, while Anniston’s attention was riveted on the aftermath of the bus attack out on Birmingham Highway, thick sludge from Monsanto’s Anniston plant overwhelmed the local water department’s treatment station downstream in Oxford and, for three or four days, heavy concentrations of untreated industrial waste poured directly into Choccolocco Creek. When approached by a local reporter, Monsanto’s representative attributed the discharge to a temporary malfunction in the plant’s waste treatment center—implying it was an isolated incident, not an inherent aspect of production. At the same time, the company pled ignorance of hazards associated with its chemical...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN The Death of Aroclors
    (pp. 147-173)

    Shortly before Christmas, 1970, a representative from the Monsanto plant approached West Anniston resident Jeremiah Smith with an unusual request. Monsanto wanted to buy all fifty of his hogs—at ten dollars a head. Smith raised pigs for a little fresh meat and an occasional bit of supplementary income, as did several of the chemical factory’s other African American neighbors. The animals were free to root around in the streams and often foraged on the plant’s unfenced land without objection from Monsanto. Factory officials never explained to Smith why they bought his entire herd. The company had bought the herds...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT Challenging the Green Dragon
    (pp. 174-201)

    Awareness of the town’s toxic legacy first came to Anniston residents not because of PCBs, but through revelations in the late 1980s that the U.S. Army had amassed a substantial arsenal of outdated Cold War–era chemical weapons at the Anniston Army Depot. News about the weapons stockpile came as a double shock, revealing not only that highly poisonous and potentially explosive munitions were stored just west of the city but also that the Army intended to burn the weapons on-site. The Army’s plan to build a hazardous waste incinerator raised fears of chemical contamination, both from the nerve agents...

  14. CHAPTER NINE Contaminated Bodies, Contaminated Soil
    (pp. 202-234)

    Like many of the people who mobilized for safe disposal of chemical weapons, Cassandra Roberts had not planned on becoming an environmental activist. Nevertheless, Roberts would become a principal leader in the fight over PCB contamination that pitted West Anniston residents against one of the world’s most powerful agrochemical conglomerates. The tough, compassionate probation officer for Calhoun County from West Anniston and her husband, Jerry, lived in a comfortable home in Bynum, about seven miles from the Monsanto plant, near Jerry’s job at the Anniston Army Depot. Upon learning that persistent, toxic PCBs permeated her old neighborhood, Roberts, along with...

  15. CHAPTER TEN Witnessing the Explosion in Toxic Torts
    (pp. 235-263)

    In early 1996, as Monsanto’s relocation plan uprooted families living nearest the chemical factory, residents of West Anniston saw no alternative but to take Monsanto to court. After learning of the contamination, individual property and business owners in Anniston and along the waterways filed multiple lawsuits against Monsanto seeking compensation for damages caused by the pollution and an injunction against further dumping of PCBs. The litigation became a mechanism for uncovering both what Monsanto had known for decades, as well as for expanding knowledge about the residents’ levels of exposure and the health effects of PCBs. The Sweet Valley/Cobbtown Environmental...

  16. CHAPTER ELEVEN Aftershocks
    (pp. 264-290)

    Optimism prevailed in Anniston as State Circuit Court Judge Laird and Federal District Court Judge Clemon stood on the sweltering south-facing steps of Anniston’s restored brick judicial building on August 21, 2003, and told the growing crowd of the record settlement in damages and cleanup costs against Monsanto. People flooded in from Atlanta, Mobile, and the surrounding counties to hear the announcement firsthand. Though theAbernathytrial had taken place in Gadsden, and the settlement accord was first announced in federal court in Birmingham, the judges came to Anniston to share the news on the Calhoun County Courthouse steps.


  17. EPILOGUE Remodeling the Model City
    (pp. 291-304)

    “You don’t go around and do things like this to people and get away with it,” says Opal Scruggs. Scruggs believes that Monsanto officials, those who knew about the hazards associated with PCB exposure and did not act to protect Anniston residents, will get justice, eventually. “I’d like to be at the Pearly Gates when some of them goes up there and listen to their excuses. It’s just money, but they have profited off of all of us out here. And yet, they think they’ve done nothing wrong.”¹

    Despite the inadequacies of the PCB settlement and its messy fallout, the...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 305-376)
    (pp. 377-410)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 411-440)