Excerpt: Baptized in PCBs, by Ellen Griffith Spears

Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American TownIn 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 Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town , 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 legacy of racism.

In the following excerpt from the book (pp. 119–121), Spears explains how Monsanto’s political and economic power in Anniston protected it from deeper scrutiny in the 1960s.


In late May 1961, while Anniston’s attention was riveted on the aftermath of the [Freedom Riders] 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 waste. “We thought it was harmless, and we have no evidence to change that opinion at this stage,” claimed plant production manager Carl Edelblut soon after the incident.[1]

Within days, the Alabama Water Improvement Commission (AWIC), the State Department of Conservation, and the U.S. Public Health Service opened a joint investigation into “an apparently extensive fish kill in the lower reaches of Choccolocco Creek.” This investigation, however ineffectual, marked the first regulatory attention to stream pollution flowing from the Anniston plant. Upon completion of its investigation, AWIC, the agency charged with enforcing regulations against stream pollution in the state, offered a brief exculpatory statement. “We do not have any criticism to offer in any way concerning the manner in which the problem was handled,” Joe L. Crockett, of AWIC, told the Anniston Star.[2] Crockett would prove a valuable ally of Monsanto in coming years.

Even after the massive fish kill in 1961, toxic discharges received little notice in the local press. In general, the Star reported accidents but did not treat pollution as an ongoing threat. Offensive odors and periodic small explosions at the plant were regarded as nuisances, the necessary consequence of having a leading division of one of the world’s most successful chemical corporations next door. In the early 1960s, with local unemployment pegged at 8 percent, city leaders were loath to criticize the pillars of the region’s industrial base. Despite the expansion of the chemical, biological, and radiological warfare training center at Fort McClellan in 1960, the local economy sagged. Seeking federal designation as a “depressed area” in hopes of improving opportunities for local businesses to bid competitively for federal contracts, city leaders featured the Monsanto plant prominently. Even with the sluggish economy, Monsanto had increased production in Anniston by 50 percent in 1960, prompting an Anniston Star editorial that called the plant “one of our best industrial advertisements.”[3]
Monsanto’s statement to the press that its chemical wastes were “harmless” is directly contradicted by internal records that document long-standing corporate knowledge of PCBs’ toxicity. In communications to industrial clients, Monsanto revealed that, in fact, waste that contained PCBs posed serious danger, especially to aquatic life. Nearly a year prior to the massive fish kill in Choccolocco Creek, an industrial hygienist in Monsanto’s medical department warned of precisely this danger in relation to the company’s Pydraul fluids, which contained Aroclors. In a memo to a Pennsylvania tool manufacturer and Monsanto customer, the hygienist warned, “If the material [Pydraul] is discharged in large concentrations it will adversely effect [sic] the organisms in the bottom of the receiving stream which will effect [sic] the aquatic life in the stream.”[4] Monsanto officials shared with industrial customers (at least those who made inquiries) precisely the same knowledge that they pointedly denied in statements to the local news media.

Scattered protests predated awareness of PCBs. Residents of West Anniston had long complained of “obnoxious gases, smoke and vapors” from the plant. A meeting in the spring of 1958 for “organizing a committee in regards to the unpleasant odors and smoke created by Monsanto Chemical Company which is plaguing our community” aimed to speed installation of pollution control equipment. Joe Fincher and other residents who lived near the plant had filed suit against Monsanto after the plant launched its parathion insecticide operation in January, citing a stench from the plant “so severe that on many occasions complainants or their families have vomited, have been unable to eat, and have been made seriously sick.” In ruling that Fincher could proceed with his lawsuit, the Alabama Supreme Court declared it likely that Monsanto, “unless restrained, will continue the operation of the plant so as to cause the nuisance complained of.”[5]

In time, knowledge about PCB contamination and its effects on wildlife and human health would no longer be confined to confidential corporate memos, arcane scientific journals, or closed-door meetings. For the moment, however, through paternalistic reassurances that its operations were safe and aggressive management of public relations and the press, Monsanto officials effectively deflected deeper inquiry. Waterway contamination in West Anniston occasionally prompted government intervention. But carefully cultivated allies in state and federal agencies repeatedly protected the company’s economic interests and often echoed company denials of harm. After concluding the investigation of the 1961 fish kill, Alabama water commissioner Crockett assured the public, “If any mistake was made, we are satisfied that it was not intentional and was due primarily to a lack of information on the part of everyone concerned.”[6]


From Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town, by Ellen Griffith Spears. Copyright © 2014 by Ellen Griffith Spears.

  1. [1]“The Nature of the Poison,” in LKB Produkter, “Poison: KLB Helps to Make a Safer World,” press release, January 10, 1967, Owens Archive; Jim Lowrey, “U.S., State Are Investigating Choccolocco Creek Fish Deaths,” Anniston Star, May 20, 1961.
  2. [2]Jim Lowrey, “U.S., State Are Investigating Choccolocco Creek Fish Deaths,” Anniston Star, May 20, 1961.
  3. [3]“Monsanto Expanding,” Anniston Star, January 19, 1961; “Calhoun and Anniston: Depressed Area Designation Seen,” Anniston Star, February 2, 1961; “Monsanto Moves Up,” Anniston Star, February 25, 1961; Monsanto Chemical Company, Monsanto Annual Report 1960, 10; “Monsanto Optimistic Despite National Economy: Present Level to Stay Here,” Anniston Star, March 21, 1961.
  4. [4]Monsanto Chemical Company, “Salesmen’s Manual, Aroclors Description and Properties,” October 1, 1944, 6, Abernathy documents; E. Mather, “Process for the Production of Aroclors, Pyranols, etc. at the Anniston and at the W. G. Krummrich Plant, XI. Hazards, Toxicity,” 3-–7 (April 1955), Abernathy documents; Ex parte Monsanto and Solutia (Abernathy v. Monsanto), February 26, 2003; Jack T. Garrett to S. Facini, Chicago Pneumatic Tool Company, August 29, 1960, Abernathy documents.
  5. [5]Special meeting notice, Anniston Star, April 15, 1958; D. B. Hosmer, “To the People of Anniston: Progress Report,” Monsanto v. Fincher (1961), 535-–38, 536, 537, 538.
  6. [6]Jim Lowrey, “U.S., State Are Investigating Choccolocco Creek Fish Deaths,” Anniston Star, May 20, 1961.