5 May 2003
Water Numbers Days of a Trailer Park
By RICK BRAGG
La., May 1 — Before the water went bad, most people in the
trailer park never thought of their aluminum-skinned houses as a
mobile home, only home. Hard against the rows of sugar cane, not
far from the big chemical plants that light up the evening sky,
the trailers in the Myrtle Grove park were dented but decent, and
the tires rotted in the grass.
staying in the tree-shaded neighborhood just outside the river city
of Plaquemine is unthinkable. There is poison in the well water
that they used to drink, a chemical used to make plastic called
vinyl chloride. The state knew this years ago, but residents were
not told. They wonder what it will do to them someday, and what
it has done to them already.
the late afternoon, the smell of real food — smothered steak
and stewed turkey necks — drifts across the community of about
50 homes, and women lean against their cars to talk about the bad
water with a kind of gauzy anger and an unspecific fear.
and Tammy, and Michelle, we all had miscarriages," Faye Robertson
said, pointing down the road of trailers at the homes of her neighbors
and friends. Women who live here say that as many as 13 pregnancies
ended in miscarriage in just the last few years, and say that their
children burned and itched from bath water and wading pools.
30, 2001. Shermicia," Ms. Robertson said of the date she miscarried
the baby, and the name she had picked out. She was pregnant when
she found out, from tests on the wells, that the water was tainted,
and read — with a chill — a pamphlet from health workers
warning of possible threats from vinyl chloride to unborn children.
I thought, `I hope I don't lose my baby,' " she said.
experts warned them that exposure to the colorless chemical, which
is used to make plastic pipes, furniture and upholstery, could cause
liver cancer, nerve damage, circulatory problems and skin lesions,
but because incidents of drinking or bathing in such contaminated
water are so rare, scientists are unsure about just how toxic it
testing showed that long-term exposure could cause reproductive
problems, including miscarriage.
the double row of mobile homes is marked here and there by a bare
brown patch of dirt, as the tow trucks come in and pull away the
trailers, one by one. In less than two months, the deadline set
by the landlord, they will all be gone.
community will cease to exist.
it's too late," said Lea James, who lives here. "What
effect will it have?" she wondered, since she carries the residue
of the chemical with her to a new home.
poisoning of the aquifer near Plaquemine (pronounced PLACK-uh-mun),
has resulted in a criminal investigation by state and federal authorities.
The state has impaneled a grand jury in Iberville Parish, which
includes Myrtle Grove, and appointed a special prosecutor.
is the first time ever there has been a grand jury put together
on environmental issues in the state of Louisiana," said Marylee
M. Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action
Network, a watchdog organization. "The local people are really
are also angry. For years, state inspectors knew of the contamination,
and never said a word.
at least five years, 1997 to 2001, wells at the Myrtle Grove Trailer
Park off Bayou Jacob Road poured polluted water into the saucepans,
wading pools and water glasses of some 300 residents here. The Louisiana
Department of Health and Hospitals first detected the contamination
in 1997 but, through what state officials called "human error,"
failed to tell people here about it.
state health agency, because of its self-described bureaucratic
foul-up, also failed to tell the Louisiana Department of Environmental
Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Residents
here say the vinyl chloride probably existed for years before it
was detected in the Upper Plaquemine Aquifer in 1997.
here call it "Dow water" and believe that the Dow chemical
plant nearby is responsible for the contamination.
officials say that their plant is not the source of the pollution
at Myrtle Grove and that their scientists are working in the community
to pinpoint the source.
trailer park's residents are suing the Department of Health and
Hospitals, the park's owner, A. Wilberts Sons, and Dow, which manufactures
vinyl chloride in the plant about two miles away. They worry about
the potential damage to their bodies but seem just as angry about
being run off from their homes.
is, despite the temporary nature of their dwellings, a real home,
said Tammy Green, who works as a home-care provider in the parish.
She is 37 and has lived here 19 years, raising two children with
her husband, Lloyd. Newly painted iron barbecue grills sit outside.
A big shade tree cools the yard in the summer, and in this part
of the world, summer is almost all the time.
before the water scared them, there would have been a baby in a
wading pool in almost every yard, and people washing their cars
in the driveways. "And we just all went on with life, cooking
with it, not knowing," Mrs. Green said.
Father's Day, three years ago, she had a miscarriage, but no one
had told them yet about the threat.
she and the other women here learned about the vinyl chloride, she
said, they began to count the number of miscarriages in recent years.
"Thirteen," she said. "That many women on one street?
Something is wrong."
know I'll never try again," she said of her pregnancy. "I'll
never do that again."
here laugh at the notion, put forth by some experts, that the vinyl
chloride does not emanate from a chemical plant.
appears to be originating from the area where Dow has its production
facilities," said Wilma Subra, a chemist and consultant to
the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. "They produce vinyl
chloride. They sell it."
a two-year investigation, the Louisiana Department of Environmental
Quality is reluctant to conclude that the contamination emanates
from Dow, said Tim Knight, the state environmental technology administrator.
But when asked if the company was the prime suspect, he said yes.
in the aquifer underneath the plant itself showed no vinyl chloride,
said Rebecca Bentley, a spokeswoman for Dow in Louisiana.
Dow's tests show that water in the aquifer flows primarily to the
west, not toward the trailer park, which is southwest of the plant.
Environmental Protection Agency's tests, however, showed that the
aquifer, 190 feet below the surface, flows in a south to southwest
direction from the plant, which would carry it under the trailer
agency expert, James T. Wilson, said he did not believe the vinyl
chloride was coming from the Dow plant and said an accidental release
into the air would evaporate. Instead, he believes that pollution
here is from an old spill of another chemical that broke down into
Ms. Subra said a seepage into the soil or the aquifer would not
evaporate and would collect in the groundwater.
believe it's pure product," said Ms. Orr of the vinyl chloride
in the water, and not the result of a chemical breakdown.
has helped in the investigation to find the source by paying for
test wells, Ms. Bentley said.
would agree that it's unfortunate that these people's lives have
been disrupted," she said. "We are working to be part
of the solution."
of Myrtle Grove say the state is afraid to pursue Dow, which employs
3,000 people in its plant here. The cars in most of the driveways
here are paid for, directly or indirectly, by Dow paychecks. Home
notes depend on the plant.
Myrtle Grove, only the empty spaces hint that there is anything
still wheel their bicycles up Kuneman Road, as their mothers wonder
how they can afford to relocate on paychecks that are already spoken
for by utility companies and creditors. Most residents work blue-collar
jobs, installing insulation, working in the sugar-cane business
or as nurse's aides and home-care workers. Many people here have
refused to pay rent, blaming the landowner, partly, for their predicament.
landlord, who is closing the park because of skyrocketing insurance
rates caused by the pollution, has given them $2,000 to relocate.
"They are just victims like the other folks," said Rafael
Bermudez, a spokesman for A. Wilberts Sons. "They've lost their
trailer park. It was their land that was contaminated."
would like to find out themselves," he said of the source.
despite the ominous nature of their eviction, say they will stay
as long as they can, drinking from water lines that now bring safe
city water into their not really mobile homes.
seems to drift outside as the afternoon cools, as the wind blows
in off the cane fields. Grandmothers tend small children, and about
3 p.m. a big yellow bus sends a throng of them running for the trailers
that are pocked and warped but, here and there, freshly painted.
Porches have been built on some.
was a nice place," said Joyce Barrett, who has already left.