Brockovich: We will investigate Whirlpool pollution

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 176 views 

Bob Bowcock suggested that research identifying pollution near Whirlpool’s Fort Smith manufacturing plant used “creative math” to downplay the extent of the pollution.

More than 350 residents and former Whirlpool employees gathered Tuesday night (March 26) to hear from the Erin Brockovich and Bowcock, an investigator for the Brockovich Firm, about what they say are the real risks from trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination caused in the 1980s in the area surrounding Whirlpool's former manufacturing facility in south Fort Smith and what the next steps are for residents seeking a solution to potential pollution of their property.

Bowcock spoke during most of the town hall meeting. He started off by saying he was perplexed by the lack of a written record detailing both the contamination and attempts to remedy the situation.

"There's a lot of documents, but they don't really say a lot about what's happened and what's going on," he said.

Attendees in the standing room-only crowd were told that the Brockovich Firm had been in Fort Smith the last two days investigating the pollution in the area by possibly-carcinogenic TCE and how far it had spread.

"We walked around the facility, we looked at the drainage system coming off the property. We understand a little bit about what they were making there and the chemicals they were using. We walked the rail spurs and kind of looked at the topography, you know? What does the Earth look like just from the surface because that's going to tell you a lot about where these chemicals are going to go and everybody knows, who lives here, that Whirlpool's kind of in a high spot and it's headed in a northeasterly direction down to the creek."

According to Bowcock, the TCE is about seven to 10 feet deep.

Addressing the area where Whirlpool has said the TCE "plume" is located, Bowcock told the audience that the oddly-shaped area that wraps up and around was likely not the only place where TCE contamination could be located.

"For those of you who have received the document out of the record, they draw these amoeba shapes and expect you to believe after 25 years of dumping lots and lots of TCE and other chemicals, that's the other thing we want to talk about, other chemicals, that it somehow makes this miraculous ameba shape, OK? It's creative math when you come up with a shape like this. I will tell you that the area of impact is going to be greater than this. We're quite confident of that just looking at the data set."

One area where Bowcock expects the Brockovich Firm to find TCE, as well as other chemicals, is south of the manufacturing facility.

A former resident of the area south of the facility was Susan Johnson of Pocola, Okla.

Prior to the meeting, she told how not only she, but her father and mother, had experienced health problems ranging from tumors to neurological disorders after living on the north end of Holly Avenue for nearly 50 years.

"My dad suffered from a nerve disorder called trigeminal neuralgia that he was diagnosed with back in the 80s. It was excruciating. They literally had to paralyze off half of his face. It blinded him in one eye. He lost control of that side of his face," she explained.

She added that her mother also suffered conditions such as non-diabetic peripheral neuropathy, a neuropathy condition that she says is a rare disorder for non-diabetic sufferers.

"My mother has it, the man who lives behind my mother has it, the man who lives catacorner my mother's house died from complications from it several years back, and the man that lived across the street from him was the exact same way. That's four people with neuropathy within about 100 yards of each other."

Johnson said she has had three different tumors removed from her body. Had she known the danger Bowcock said her family was in, Johnson was certain that her mother would not still be living in her long-time home.

"We would have lived somewhere else if someone had just bothered to tell us," Johnson said.

Bowcock told the sometimes raucous crowd that there was knowledge of the dangers of TCE dating back to before WWII.

Some of the disorders he said could be directly attributed to TCE exposure include birth defects and parkinson's disease.

When asked how many people in the room were directly affected or knew someone affected by diseases and disorders who had either lived in the neighborhood around Whirlpool or who had worked at the factory, nearly half of the hands in the room went up.

The issue of instituting a groundwater well ban was also addressed by Bowcock, who explained that even if the city directors pass an ordinance instituting a ban at tomorrow's  (March 27) Fort Smith Board of Directors meeting, it does not address health concerns, the larger issue of cleanup or a decline in property values.

"By instituting the no-pump zone, it does not fix the problem. It does not fix the problem. It calls out more the attention to the fact that this particular neighborhood has now been delineated and deed-restricted and if you go to transfer your property you are now, you are actually, regardless of what they do, if you're in the area where they've requested it, they've already affected your property values. That's just a straight fact. No question about it. You have to now disclose that you are over an impacted area."

He went on to say several minutes later that there was a way for the pollution to be cleaned up if only Whirlpool would consent to such a clean up.

"But they know it's out there, they know what it does and they know how to fix it and they have to stop hiding behind the regulatory community that allows them to perpetuate their problem.

When asked by a man in the crowd what the cost of cleaning up the contamination would be, Bowcock said it would have probably been only $2 million or $3 million if it had been done when the contamination was found and reported to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ).

But since so many years have passed since the contamination, he said the costs have skyrocketed.

"That (cost) has probably gone up, oh more than 10 fold, probably 25 or 30 times. So yeah, they're probably looking at if they did it today because it's gone so far…so they're going to double their cost there plus the operating expense."

During a press conference prior to the town hall meeting, Brockovich, whose grandfather was a Fort Smith native, said the investigation being conducted by her team would start yielding results as early as the next two weeks.

"We did some sampling today. We did a walk around, we did the railroad tracks in the back and you can kind of see where the low spots are and we can probably get a good idea where they dumped," she said.

Brockovich said she did not want to appear jaded and skeptical about what the results of her firm's investigation will show, but it was hard not to be skeptical.

"For 22 years, every time I see reports that are done, they're done by the company and they're not independent and more often than not we find out we have a bigger contamination than they led us to know that there is."

Residents and former Whirlpool employees were asked to provide contact information so that the Brockovich Firm could continue following up with residents, including those who are having health problems, on next steps with the investigation.

Bowcock also said the firm would also be setting up a Facebook page where residents and former employees could contact himself and Brockovich directly and with anonymity regarding concerns about the Whirlpool site.

He said tonight's meeting and the last few days of investigation are just the start of a very long process to get Whirlpool to clean up TCE and other pollutants it may have leaked into environment surrounding the former plant.

Brockovich continued, saying finding a conclusion to this problem started tonight.

"We're here to help you. We're going to start the process of an investigation. We've already started sampling. We're going to be back to get more samples. We're going to be in touch with you. We're going to tell you what we find out. We're going to tell you what documents we uncover. We're going to work with the employees and we will start the process of isolating where the plume is, where it isn't, who's impacted and then one of the decisions you will have to make is you will be entitled and you have the right to have your property bought, taken care of or any future damages for your health as we move forward."

Following the meeting, Vice Mayor Kevin Settle said information he and other Directors heard at the meeting was important to their decision on whether to vote for the groundwater well ban at tomorrow night's Board of Directors meeting.

"There's a lot of information we just got here. What we have to decide is how to move forward as a community, as both Bob (Bowcock) and Erin (Brockovich) talked about. It's one of those things I'm going to have to think about tonight…(to) make a decision that's best for the city of Fort Smith."

Director Pam Weber said after the meeting that she was concerned about the possibility that the contamination issue was larger than initially presented to the Board by Whirlpool's attorney and environmental consultants at a Feb. 12 Board meeting.

"As a community, our environment is one of our biggest assets," she said. "We need corporations to feel the same."

Weber also said that she would not be voting for the ordinance imposing a groundwater well ban north of the former Whirlpool factory.

"I feel that it weakens the possibility of Whirlpool coming in immediately for a clean up."

City Administrator Ray Gosack said he was alarmed at the number of former Whirlpool employees who had concerns about their health after working at the facility.

"I didn't realize there were that many concerns from former employees. I was aware of people that lived in the affected area were concerned about health, but we learned tonight that many former employees are concerned about their exposure to chemicals in the plant," Gosack said.

He also said Whirlpool is starting to understand that the groundwater well ban may not fully address the issue of contamination in the neighborhood, just as Bowcock had said, which was why the company requested that the Board withdraw consideration for the ban at tomorrow's meeting.

"I think what Whirlpool realizes is they need to put together a more comprehensive plan for dealing with the problem and that the ordinance may or may not be part of the comprehensive plan and they want some time to put that plan together, hold community meetings, review the plan with the public and also work with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality. So I think what they're asking the city to do is take a time out while they prepare that information and review it with the community before the city takes any action."

A call seeking comment from Whirlpool following the town hall meeting was not returned.

In an e-mail earlier today, Kristine Vernier, senior global and media relations manager for Whirlpool, said the company would not cooperate with The City Wire's requests for comment, which have gone unanswered for months. Vernier's response noted: "Unfortunately we do not respond to requests from The City Wire due to a past, consistent pattern of behavior from this blog which we found to be contrary to common journalistic standards."

The Board of Directors meeting will take place tomorrow (March 27) at 6 p.m. at the Fort Smith Public School Service Center at 3205 Jenny Lind – Building B.

Gosack said representatives from Whirlpool, including their attorney and environmental consultants, will be in attendance as well as a representative from ADEQ.