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The Indiana stretch of the Ohio River Valley is one of the most toxic environments on Earth. On Nov. 24, I took a road trip to Evansville and Mount Vernon to interview John Blair, president of the environmental group Valley Watch, and Marcella Piper-Terry, an autism care provider who has collected extensive background data on her clients’ environmental exposures. This story is the first in a series on autism and the Southwest Indiana environment. – sh
John Blair readily agrees that Southwest Indiana is the perfect laboratory in which to explore the connection between industrial pollution and the increasing incidence of autism and other developmental disabilities. He has witnessed both sides of the equation in his three decades as president of the environmental group Valley Watch.
"We have distinct problems down here with neurological diseases," he says during an interview in his Evansville office on a cloudy, crisp November day. "… And we are under assault from almost every kind of toxic chemical there is."
The first story Blair relates during an hourlong interview details an "epidemic" of multiple sclerosis (MS) he learned of a year-and-a-half ago in conversations with Perry County physicians and the Tri-State Multiple Sclerosis Association. Situated three counties upriver from Evansville, with a population of less than 20,000, Perry has an incidence rate for multiple sclerosis (MS) that is "off the charts," he says.
"It’s not something that’s been all along," he says, explaining that MS attacks the central nervous system. "It’s something that’s come in the past 10 or 12 years."
Identifying specific cause-effect relations between pollution and MS and other neurologic disorders like autism is difficult, perhaps impossible, Blair acknowledges. But documenting the release of toxic pollution, including recognized neurotoxins like mercury, arsenic and lead, is a snap.
The industries that release the most toxins are metals, coal-fired power plants and plastics, he says. And Southwest Indiana has large, barely regulated concentrations of them all.
"We get it from all sides," he says. "It doesn’t matter which way the wind blows, it doesn’t matter which way the water flows, we’re getting it."
Against the backdrop of telephone interruptions from reporters and fellow activists seeking background on an upcoming hearing for a proposed "syngas" (synthetic gas) plant in nearby Rockport, Blair produces documents that demonstrate Southwest Indiana is among the nation’s hottest "toxic hotspots."
Five Southwest Indiana counties — Spencer, Posey, Pike, Warrick and Gibson — released 57.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the Ohio River Valley environment in 2007, Blair says, "and I only counted the ones that were over 100,000 pounds."
His figures are drawn from Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) data compiled and published by the U.S. Environmental Protection agency, which also show two industries in Spencer County — AK Steel and the Rockport Power Plant — together emit 30 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment every year.
"That is a full third more than all the industries in New York City, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Indianapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego combined," he says. "All those cities combined, representing 34 million people, put out 20 million pounds of toxic chemicals a year."
AK Steel, which melts and recycles steel, moved to Rockport in 1997. And at the time, officials from the company and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management assured the public that the facility would be state-of-the-art in terms of environmental protection. But almost overnight, AK Steel, became the nation’s largest water polluter.
"They put out 24 million pounds of toxic chemicals year," Blair says, slowly, lowering his voice and taking a breath with each word. "A lot of that goes into the water. The bulk of it goes into the wastewater, which goes into the Ohio River, which I drink."
In his early 60s, Blair works out of an oblong, one-story building just north of downtown Evansville that serves as a combination Valley Watch office and photography studio. He won a Pulitzer Prize for News Photography in 1979 and freelances today, while teaching journalism at the University of Southern Indiana. He leaves the office lights off as the daylight fades.
No one calls Southwest Indiana "plastics alley" anymore, he says, in part because it’s not a moniker to be proud of. But it still fits.
For three decades or so, GE Plastics, one of the nation’s worst polluters, was located in Mount Vernon, a hamlet of roughly 7,000 located about 20 miles west of Evansville. Blair and others had documented several cancer clusters in the town, and in 1995 he started a video documentary about GE Plastics’ impact on the community.
Walking around the town square one day, he found citizens nervous and reluctant to talk. "I finally found this one barber, and he was scared out of his wits," Blair says. "He said, ‘You know, I’m not so scared for myself, … I’m so afraid for this community because all my customers are dying of cancer.’"
As part of his research, Blair heard a story about GE suddenly shutting down a 13-employee department, "just flat out shut it down and moved all those employees off to other parts of the plant. Within a year after they shut that down, all 13 of those employees were dead, according to this story."
When corrective action was taken in the late ’90s, GE Plastics was releasing 10 tons a day of a cancer-causing substance called methylene chloride, Blair says. The operation eventually sold to an outfit called Sabic Innovative Plastics, which is owned by the Houston-based Sabic Americas Inc. Blair says the name means Saudi Basic Industries Corp.
According to the TRI, Sabic Innovative Plastics released 1.5 million pounds of toxics into the environment in 2007. Included in that amount were 243,250 pounds of dichloromethane, also known as methylene chloride.
"They cut them 90 percent," Blair says of the methylene chloride emissions, "but they’re still releasing almost a ton a day, of a carcinogen."
Methylene chloride is also a neurotoxin.
Mercury is another of the neurotoxins linked to autism and developmental disabilities that find their ways into Southwest Indiana children’s bodies on a daily basis.
"We have these mercury issues for sure," Blair says. "You can’t live in the largest concentration of coal-fired power plants in the world — burning mercury-laden coal — you can’t live in an area that has this large concentration and not expect some problems from it."
He cites a video on the University of Calgary Web site titled “How Mercury Causes Brain Neuron Degeneration” that, for the first time, visually shows low-level mercury exposure doing its damage. "They take this drop of mercury and put it in there where they’ve been growing these neurons," he says, "and it just destroys the neurons."
Toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic chemicals, they’re all produced by coal combustion, Blair says. "Arsenic is big in coal. Coal has it all."
Duke Energy used to allow recreation on a 3,800-acre lake the utility used to cool water from its coal-fired Gibson Generating Station, Blair says. Rather than use cooling towers like most power plants, Gibson, the nation’s fourth dirtiest power plant, used this lake.
"It used to be a great fishing lake, used to be a great sailing lake," he says. "Well, they first said people couldn’t be on it in sailboats anymore because they’d get splashed. Then they said people couldn’t fish in it anymore. Now it’s completely sealed off, and they won’t allow anyone even near it because of selenium."
Selenium is a neurotoxin.
"Every coal-fired power plant around us puts out a million pounds, minimum, of toxic chemicals a year," Blair says.
As the Valley Watch office dims in synch with the early evening light, Blair says the poisons assaulting Southwest Indiana kids aren’t limited to the Indiana side of the river. According to TRI data he has compiled, Western Kentucky industries emitted another 20.2 million pounds a year into the Ohio River Valley in 2007.
One bluegrass polluter is a 40-year-old aluminum plant called Southwire in Hawesville, Ky., right across the Ohio River from Perry County.
Fourteen years ago, in May 1994, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a "Preliminary Public Health Assessment on the National Southwire Aluminum Company" The report was prepared by the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
"Based on the information reviewed, ATSDR has concluded that the National Southwire Aluminum Company site poses a public health hazard," the report concludes.
While the primary concern focused on plant workers, "exposures have occurred, are occurring, or are likely to occur in the future" for citizens living near the plant, on both sides of the river as well, the report says. "Nearby residents who live in the vicinity of the site have been exposed and may still be exposed to aluminum, arsenic, cobalt, cyanide, manganese and nickel through skin contact or soil or water ingestion."
Lead was another contaminant released into the environment from the Southwire plant, the report said. "Pregnant women exposed to lead can pass lead to their unborn children," it warned. "Lead is particularly dangerous for the developing fetus. Lead also causes slow growth and learning problems for infants."
Citizens who drank and washed with water from the Hawesville, Tell City, Cannelton, Troy, Lewisport, East Daviess and Evansville water systems "have been exposed and may still be exposed to fluoride, manganese and arsenic through drinking water," the report authors continued.
Still, the CDC assured Perry County citizens 15 years ago that they had little to fear, that they had been exposed to "low levels of contaminants." But a section of the agency’s report, titled "Community Health Concerns," summarized several questions raised by the only two citizens who submitted comments. The first one read:
"Are the few cases of autoimmune disease (especially multiple sclerosis and lupus) reported by one resident who also suffers from a mild form of multiple sclerosis caused by site-related chemicals?"