Thursday, May 5, 2011

Chapter 12: Surveying the Damage....

Chapter 12 : Surveying the Damage

By Winter of 2000, even just attending the Homeschool Meetings and going to Bookshops and Coffee Shops, as a nurse I was becoming rapidly aware that there were more than the usual number of Health Problems. My son and I would go to the Coffee Shops and sit and play chess or read.But we would see people come in and there were many canes, and tremulous hands and people that looked older than they were. There were others that were too thin and people losing hair, and others with yellowed eyes.

As a nurse I have always had keen diagnostic skills,even when I worked ER I had the ability to know when people were going to come back with altered labs, or Renal Trouble or a Neuromuscular disorder or heart disease.But it is not just a skill that was used in an ER or working as a nurse, if I sit in a coffee shop I intuitively do recognize people around me with illness or disease.

My son and I talked about it and I had no explanation that was reasonable or made sense as to why we were seeing so many sick people.And like any child, he moved on with his life, and it became my worry , alone late at night. As a nurse I was struggling to figure out why people looked frail and unhealthy. Many of the people looked like they were struggling with neuromuscular issues, there was faltering coordination and tremors.There were people that walked with a staggering gait, and even foot drop. There people were young, under 50, yet a fair number looked like they were wrestling with Parkinson's or MS. And then there was a sleepy quality, a dazed quality that pervaded downtown. People would come to the coffee shops and leave coats or umbrellas, you would see them stacked by the door. We laughed about it, but it was concerning.

There was a local arts group that held meetings about providing programs for children and I attended and was sitting sipping a Iced Chai Tea, and three of the other organizers sitting at my table kept falling asleep. I sat there puzzled and confused. But mostly puzzled that people that lived there considered this to be normal.

At the one coffee shop I watched the manager move among tables for a couple of months I watched him quietly tending his patrons. He was kind and thoughtful, offering more than coffee and tea. Over time I would talk to him while my son took classes at the Shakespearean Youth Theater down the street.He intrigued me because he seemed concerned about the people at his shop as if he too was worried about the people of the town.I nicknamed him Java and over time we would talk about the people. I also learned that he had been born and raised in the town, so he had a unique perspective.

He admitted the sleepy quality of the town bothered him as well. I asked what he thought was causing it, and ironically it was a Spring Day and we were standing outside the shop and both of us sniffed the air and gagged and coughed at the same time.
I told him that since we moved to town the air was awful, and that we lived mere blocks from the waterfront, but that was not what we smelled. We smelled Strange Chemical Odors and Burnt Odors , sometimes it smelled like burnt Rubber and other times like Burnt Rotting Meat, and other times it smelled like burnt sweetened bagels, and other times like burnt Mustard that would make my eyes water. I also told him about finding ash on my car. Java laughed, and said that was what everyone experienced, that none of what I described was new. He said it must be " The Plant".

Java tilted his head down to The Plant on the Waterfront, and I asked "Where is the Plant on the Waterfront". And he laughed, " IT IS The Waterfront- all of it". I stood stunned, "ALL of it ? ".

I was confused, I said " What Plant". He nodded down towards the Bay, the Water and said " the Plant". He explained that the Waterfront was The Plant, GP. He explained nobody really knew how big the Plant was , but that it was most of the waterfront and that THAT was where the odors and ash were from. I was puzzled by this. I said but GP just makes TP right? He said "That is what people are told." And when he said it I had chills. I my heart I knew that there was something really ominous going on, that the people were being misled. I knew this even though I also knew that I did not know near enough to know the History or the Circumstances.

" So has anyone every asked What they burn down there or are doing that would put ash on the cars or make us cough and our eyes water ? Has anyone every asked if What they are doing could make people sick ?"

He shook his head and went back inside the coffee shop looking worried and tired. It was perhaps the simplest worst question I could have asked a lifelong resident. And his silence was perhaps confirmation of his worst fears and my worst worries. And once the question was put forth it could not be put away or silenced.

" Look people who live here, they stopped asking questions along time ago. It's because you are not from here, that you have these questions. "

"But don't you have Questions ? Aren't you tired of your eyes burning ? I have watched you with people, you too are concerned that so many are sick here "

" Yeah, I am concerned and I know that it is not right. I have been outside of here, I know it is not right, it's why I leave alot, take breaks."

" Well, then why haven't you ever left for good? "

" Because I can't ...I have family here ."

" I am sorry...I can see where that would make you stay."

" No, it's more complicated than that....."

I followed him inside and went and sat back down with my book and my tea. He came to the table and sat down, it was the first time we had tea together. He sat down and looked across and asked nervously, " You really want to know don't you ?" I said "yes". He said " You are going to let this go are you ? " And I looked at him and said " I don't know if I can." And in his own worried way he would ask the next pivotal question , "But why ? You don't know these people, you don't have to ask, you could walk away, leave it alone. You know that right ?"

I sat and thought about what he said, and realized what he said was all true. But in my head and my heart I knew that the Sick People around us, and That Waterfront, and the Ash on my car, and even the Red Trucks and maybe the Explosion were in some way all Connected. And in another way I knew that I for some reason I cared about these people I barely knew. And I knew that I could tell him about the Red Trucks and the Midnight Dumping , that he would understand my concern.

And so a friendship was formed, a bond that was inexplicable and strong, and that would extend to other people, and span miles and years. And it was an alliance that would lead to answers and exploring damage and pain in the County that had been brewing and seething for years.It was the first unexpected alliance, we would laugh about it later, how we choked on our tea and wiped our eyes.

The Obituaries became something we would sit and read on my porch and I could confess to him that I was troubled and worried by them and he didn't laugh or even question it.....and I learned that he had lost his brother and his father growing up. And that weighed on me, that he had lost people he loved. And yet over time I realized that most people I met that first year had lost people they loved to cancers or odd diseases at a young age. It haunted much as the Obituaries.

One of the thing that I did at the coffee shop while my son was at class I would read the Newspaper, and one of the things that bothered me was Obituaries.Many of the photos were of young people, and many were cancer related deaths and others
were Mysterious and empty. This bothered me as I watched the wobbly souls get coffee or drop their keys over and over. I commented on that to Java, and he even pointed out that it was rare to see Elderly out and about. It led us to wonder were there many Elderly to be our and about. We also noticed that many of the people in the town were aging rapidly, and looked older than they were. And as we talked, more and more people would sit in on these conversations and point out their concerns.

Within months I had an extensive list of problems that people were noticing and seeing around them, from neuromuscular to heart problems to tumors to asthma to birth defects and infant mortality rates to cancer rates. The List was staggering and worrisome. But questions about the health issues began to swirl in my head, were the health problems related to The Explosion ? Were they related to living near the Drinking Water Lake ? Near Downtown and the Waterfront Plant ? And what about the "LUMPS" that were being discovered all over the county ? I would go to bed at night after my son was asleep with these questions swirling in my head.

And every morning I would get up and read the Obituaries and the questions haunted me, and yet it was not something I could bring up Everywhere. Most people thought our little Puget Sound Bay Town was so lovely and tranquil and serene, and they wanted nothing to disrupt that image. So I began to be a bit more careful where I brought up these Questions and how I brought them up. My husband just had a new job as an Airlift Nurse, so I also had to be careful not to cause trouble for him in his new job.

But as Questions formed in my head, I also realized that the Questions were useful and would lead to answers. And everyday when I went to the Library with my son I started to realize that the Answers right around us, and that it would not be that difficult to explore and try to get some answers. And I simply rationalized that the people who were sick deserved some answers and maybe some reassurance, it seemed relatively simple and uncomplicated. Sadly toxic buried lies are never simple, Ever. And on another level, I realized that we had a Library and we had a computer so I figured that answers had to be close by.

So the Winter and Spring of 2000 I wrote what would become the Northwest Health Survey and that summer it would become refined thanks to help from good friends who knew how to type better than me and had questions to add. And that Survey would be part of the Journey and Investigation of Bellingham and Whatcom, and document the damage in a way that had never been done before. It was the First County Wide Health Survey in the Country ever written by a nurse and a mom. Many Toxic Areas had been explored with Health Surveys before, but never an Entire County in our Country. And the other difference was that it was designed to allow whole families to participate and track their Health and health Problems, but also explore their environment, from water to soil to animals to work to diet. It also geographically mapped Disease and Illnesses and later we would do overlay of Maps that documented dumping and showed the proximity of Actual Industrial Waste as it related to the health of the Community. It enabled us to actually map Toxic Burden on people, land, and water and correlate the damage.

The Survey was 9 pages that I could ask the family over the phone or in private, their names were witheld and I could code it with their GPS location and give it a name and number they chose.And in that way their identity was protected, and I could study whole neighborhoods. I started with my own neighborhood, but quickly branched out to other areas as relatives and friends found out about The Survey.I was also able to include other data that they felt was relative, including dead and sick pets, and allergies and Health problems that local MD's had been ignoring. ( This included "Non-Alcoholic Hepatitis" which I had never heard of, Babies diagnosed with FAS-Fetal Alcohol Syndrome with Non Drinking Parents, and "Flipper" Syndrome, and Lung Cancer in Non Smokers).

The Native Americans, the Lummi and the Nooksack, young moms and grandmoms sought me out and asked me to look at Birth Defects and infant mortality and also miscarriage rates. They asked because their own experiences taught them that there was a problem. They showed me photos of the their children. They told me how local doctors blamed it on Drinking and FAS, even when the moms did not consume alcohol or drink at all. They asked for help after seeking me out at the coffee shop.

And then there were teachers who came to me worried about the Learning Disabilities, and ADD and ADHD and autism. They also voiced concerns that many of the children that were on ADHD and ADD meds and were agitated and more irritable on these meds.

Over a period of about 4 months the Survey became more than a simple tool , it became a way for people to ask questions and even seek better care, but also was allowing them to talk to each other about their health, which up to this time they had been unable to do. I was giving out the survey in Coffee shops and in homeschool meetings, I carried extras in my car so I could even hand it out in the grocery store. And as that first Spring came I refined it and added questions as I saw Cats brutalize each other in my yard and birds flying crooked into lamp posts and the empty nests in my neighborhood. And I also figured out that The Survey allowed neighbors to talk about the ash on their cars and porches and their dead plants and why they had to leave their windows shut when the Plant was Burning Things. And I began to understand that in a Mill Town with a Big Plant on the waterfront that people did not normally talk about The Plant or the Ash, that was a big change for those that had always lived there. That The Plant had employed over 1200 people for over 40 years, so it was woven into the town. It was not be questioned or disparaged.

By that spring of 2000 I also began to realize that I needed to expand my search for answers, by going to meetings of the County and the City and watching for answers. I also knew that I needed to start asking questions and Submitting FOIA"S and ask for information. I knew that even though I am a quiet private person that my neighbors were sick and that if I wanted to stay, I needed to ask Questions to protect the health of my son and the other children on our street. It seemed so simple. And in a strange way it was the first place I ever lived where I basically became a citizen asking questions of my Government and my Community, because as a nurse and a mom , I cared.

But the Survey also opened my eyes to the Other Big Industries in the little rural Whatcom County, there was a Giant Waste Processor that processed Medical Waste and Industrial Waste, there was an Aluminum Plant, and there was the Pipeline. And yes, down on the Waterfront covering many acres there was the Oldest Plant- the GP Plant that made TP. But I also learned that it was a Chemical Plant. A Chemical Plant that most people knew nothing about.

And by Summer of 2000, when my son slept at night I had investigated most of the Health Statistics of the County, from ADD to ADHD to Autism to Childhood Leukemias to Cancer and Tumor Rates to MS to ALS to Heart Disease. And the Statistics were staggering.And for the next few years my nights would be consumed by studying the Health Stats and the maps, it would anchor my quest, my mission to figure out What was Wrong in Bellingham and Whatcom. I would end up mapping all of it, the Illnesses, the Obituaries and yes, later the Dumping, The Waste.

(1) Whatcom County had 1000-1400 New Cancers or Tumors per year diagnosed of the 10 years I studied, and this included New Tumors in people already fighting other Cancers. This Rate does NOT include Benign Tumor rates that were inaccessible.
Whatcom County is a county of approximately 148,000 to 160,000. Bellingham is a small town of approximately 48,000- 58,000 People ( depending on what numbers you find). I could not find a County in the entire Country that had comparable rates.

(2) Prostate Cancers, 180- 240 Newly diagnosed per year.( Many in men under 60, and many men with elevated with PSA rates).

(3) MS, one of the Highest County Rates in the COUNTRY.

(4) Breast Cancer; High cancer rates in women under 40, as well as Breast Cancer rates that paralleled LA. There were many women studying the breast cancer rates.

(5) Asthma, especially in children in homes that had no smokers and no other environmental triggers.

(6) Lung Cancer ( equal to that of a large city, and higher than Seattle) and the stats did indeed raise questions about Non Smokers with Lung Cancer.

(7) Autism and ADHD, and ADD rates , some of the highest rates on the West Coast.

But These Numbers are not only what kept me up at night, it was Grandmothers by the Lake doing Cluster Studies and The Moms I met who had "clubs", yes, there were there clubs there that met to honor and remember their dead children. It was their eyes that I would see when I fell asleep pouring over maps. And I could go to a meeting and look and people 's eyes and know their pain and why they wanted to be in The Survey. I was warned that The Plant would try to shut down my Survey, and instead I had widows seek me out at City and County Meetings, they brought me reports and data that I would have never known about. They would come find me in the bathroom and hand me Large Brown Envelopes. I would always wear jeans and a turtleneck and fleecy vest. And as a redhead I am easy to spot. So they would ask, " Are you the Survey Woman ? " and I would say yes. And they would say " I want to help ". I would nod and quietly take the envelopes. I was struck by their concern, their sincerity and that they cared. I was struck that 40 years of watching friends and family get sick and die maybe had reached a tipping point.And it was not just widows, it was also people who worked at government offices that gave me names and phone numbers and information. All of these unknown people, helped me to Know what to ask and What to FOIA.

And when I was not at meetings atleast a few days a month I would sit at the Local Coop and hand out information on the Survey and people would bring me the returned copies there. And one rainey Sunday a thin older woman that I had seen at Meetings and had brought me envelopes stopped by and brought me another envelope, it had Plant Safety Minutes in it,I stared at the Plant Widow, and I asked " Why are you doing this ?" And she looked at me with large watery red rimmed eyes, " It was never about the Toilet Paper.....and they have hurt people for too long, but they had help and you need to know that. You are fighting a bigger battle than you realize. " She walked off in the rain and shook her head.

Later that night I would sit and read the First Safety Minutes from the Plant that I would ever read, they were about Mercury Filtration.It was to be the first memo I would read about The Mercury at the Plant.Mercury was just one toxin that No One Ever Spoke of in public. And over the years I would come to know the names on the memos, they would be like Old Friends showing me the way and answering unspoken questions and divulging long hidden secrets. And later yes, I would see their names in the Obituaries.....It would all become part of Surveying the Damage.