I. The Jurupa Valley Hotel
Reality is a peculiar thing. It bends when I travel. I first notice this when I hang up the hotel phone with room service, my voice dry, high and squeaky from the flight to Jurupa Valley, California as I call downstairs to order more Scotch to replenish what I’d inhaled from the mini-fridge. In the short hours of the morning darkness outside I see a lone prowl car on the ruined streets surrounding the San Bernardino airport. The neon street lamps send cones of bruised red light onto the macadam through a rolling fog that briefly illuminates the cop car driving through and then disappearing into the shadows. In my aching jetlagged mind, I see another stroboscopic image from that old-time silent movie, Nosferatu, where Dracula pops in-and-out of space across a desolate castle courtyard, gliding about like a frenetic ice-skater on crack. I feel phantasmagoric and two dimensional! I skate across the hotel room to answer a knock at the door like Gumby that paper-thin Claymation cartoon figure and receive a basket of tiny booze bottles from a bleary-eyed denizen from the pantry downstairs.
Turning back into my sterile hotel room I find it hard to walk, moving across the smallest of spaces seems suddenly difficult, my legs sodden, head tippled, and my liver is giving me the SOS aches. The absurdity of being in southern California, alone, at 3 AM weighs on me, keeps me awake when I should be sleeping. In New York time its 10 PM and I’d be reading the paper or watching TV with my dog draped across my stomach and Ellen asleep beside me on the couch lightly snoring.
The Stringfellow Acid Pits are somewhere up there in the hills above me festering in the darkness. I think about all the depositions I reviewed, the reams of paper, the legal jargon my handlers have pounded into my head, and the terror of finally meeting the flesh and blood victims of the flood. Tomorrow I’ll see the mothers and daughters more clearly, the babies exposed to the madness of a midnight flood, the black water coming down the canyon, the smell of the chemicals before the water sweeps through the French doors into the nursery left open to assuage the heat of a torpid August night.
The phone rings in my hotel room, blistering loud in the silence.
I pick up the receiver and say, “Yes.”
“A call for you, sir,” the operator says from the lobby desk seven stories below.
“Yes, I’ll take it,” I say, knowing already that he’s chased me down.
“Ray, is that you?” I hear on the line, the voice small and diminished by the thousands of miles that separate us but the impatient tone as irritating as the words he used to send me on this mission.
“Yes, I’m here,” I answer, trying to keep the sleepless jetlag irritation from voice.
“Good, I want to let you know that I spoke to Bill Ptarmigan from Duns and Goodman while you were in flight. He’s changed plans and want to meet you on-site instead of at his office before the Public Hearing starts this afternoon.
“Is that necessary, Ben?” I ask. “I’m the expert witness not a witness of fact. I don’t need to see the site to form my professional opinion.”
“I know but he feels you might be asked on trial tomorrow if you ever visited the site by opposing counsel and it would diminish your testimony if you never placed a foot on it.”
I shrug and glance out into the blackness beyond the orange glow of the parking lot lights and envision the canyon winding above me, the bone-dry gulley gouged by seasonal floods, the exposed tinder wrack and shrubs burnt under the summer sun.
“If you feel it’s necessary, I’ll meet him there.”
“Good,” I hear Ben say, and think about him seated in his great room overlooking the lush flowing Delaware River back in Philadelphia. “Then its settled. You’ll call me when it’s over?”
“Of course, you’re the boss.”
“I like to think us as friends, Ray,” he says. “You know I run my company like a family.”
“Absolutely.” I answer but feel more like a wayward child than the benighted offspring.
“Good!” he says and hangs up.
I look at the receiver in my hand and realize I’d been squeezing it so tightly that my fingers ache. Ben, I figure, will be calling another of his minions before the receiver touches the cradle.
Placing the phone down I go to the mini bar and break the plastic strip to pull another bottle of scotch from its sequestration. Plopping a few cubes of ice into a plastic cup and pouring, I wonder about the room service attendant and wonder how she will talk to her girlfriends about the traveler in room 706. How much booze he drank, how many pork rinds devoured, the cheese doodles drowned with a dozen bottles of beer. Looking out the window, I wonder at the long yellow road that marks my passage from one hotel room to another across America littered with the detritus of my ennui.
I think of Ben back in his house and wonder if someday I’ll be the one to sit snug at home while someone else makes these treks to bring home the bacon. Ben was L’Enfant terrible a few decades ago. Started out as a lowly newbie in a Philadelphia firm with an unglamorous Juris Doctor from Temple Law, a combative Jew in a WASP firm on Broad Street, he figured he had nothing to lose by starting out on his own. After a decade of scraping thousands into millions of dollars in torts he realized he’d never make partner and not having the family ties nor the political juice to get into a more rabbinical firm, he struck upon an idea that none had considered. Construction Claims Management! He carefully screened huge construction projects that were in arears and off schedule, banks and contractors suing each other due to overruns or union problems, and he stepped in as the negotiator. He built a new kind of law firm made up not only of lawyers but engineers, accountants and construction managers, schedulers and corporate businessmen. He added specialty scientists and expert witnesses who knew the intricacies of structural failure in bridge design or how to run a chemical factory, experts whose joint skill set could jumpstart a stalled construction project back to life.
That’s where I come in.
A toxicologist and former public health official at the Center for Disease Control, he recruited me to take the company in a new direction, Environmental Claims Adjudication. He saw the huge payouts that chemical companies were making in damages after the infamous Love Canal and Times Beach Superfund sites settled. So, he decided to get a piece of the pie. I was one of a dozen expert witnesses in his stable that he sold to the highest corporate bidder, blue ribbon law firm, or insurance company to protect their bottom lines. For a while it felt good to be bartered like a veiled priestess to the highest bidder. We made the rounds of all the top Philly law firms, meeting with their corporate risk groups and selling our ability to understand environmental law and insurance regulations in a manner to reduce their clients’ exposure to million-dollar payouts for spilling carcinogens into the water and air.
As it works out, I’m a rock star in this endeavor. I’m billed out for absurd amounts of legal money to do what Ben calls box searches of depositions and evidence displays. I typically never go to court to testify. What I do is review plaintiff’s depositions, the expert testimony of opposing counsel, or just review contractor invoices for cases. In fact, the lawyers settle ninety percent of the time after I write up my findings in an expert’s report and I never get to see the inside of a courtroom. But now Ben has a new idea. He wants me to testify. He avoided settlement in this case because he felt the notoriety and public interest in the Stringfellow Acid Pits case, with thousands of plaintiffs and hundreds of defendants including the state and county governments, it would bring him an even bigger payout and high-profile branding when we won.
If we won. That’s the rub.
II. The Acid Pits
The next morning after the usual free hotel breakfast of burnt coffee, pulped sticky buns, and generic citrus juice, I picked up my antiseptically smelling rent-a-car and rode up the canyon road to look at the Pits before my meeting with the lawyer for the insurance company representing the client. The site was at the top of a mountain overlooking the city. I drive out of San Bernardino and its packed stucco houses into the loosely populated suburb of Glen Avon, California. One-story ranchers and faux log cabins hung from the hills like bats to the side of a cave, some draped at impossible angles above ravines with steel braces like clown stilts precariously hoping to survive the next big earthquake.
Eventually, I drive above the houses into an area of exposed rock and precipitous cliffs too steep to build upon. The road ends at a tiny wooden shack where a gatekeeper comes out and directs me to the far side of an open field where oil-stained tankers and flatbed trucks laden with drums sit waiting to discharge toxic wastes, many with their engines running, drivers idling away the time smoking and reading in their cabs. Those who’d already dumped their wastes were making a beeline for the gate, moving back down the mountain to pick up another load. I don’t bother to get out of my car but drive over to the edge of the biggest pond and cut the engine. I have a full-face respirator in the backseat and a hazmat suit, but the sulfurous burning odor that wafts into the car when I’d open my window to show the guard my ID convinces me to make this a windshield inspection and not get out, if possible.
Looking down the hill is a disorienting mosaic of excavated waste ponds of varying sizes and shapes with overflowing spillways that feed into one another until they reach the largest pond, a lake size declivity held in place by a large dirt and concrete impoundment. From where I sit, I can see where the dam breached, a hastily repaired section covered with rough concrete, like a bad filling in a rotted tooth. Something happens to me when I look at the breach, a triangular slice cut into of face of the berm. Another reality shift as I feel the mountain move beneath me and the sky suddenly twitch, the waste lagoons sliding and my rental car rolling along with them in a cataract toward Glen Avon below. The possibility of this being an earthquake occurs to me, but I quickly put that aside as I watch the truckers move about on the road as if nothing is amiss. The DTs? Not sure. A possibility. Dizzy and disoriented I reach into the back seat and grab my respirator and pull the mask over my face and step out of the car.
The ground is stable but the site around me looks like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. The road below filled with chemical tanker trucks idling, waiting their turn to drop liquid wastes into the lagoon at the top of the hill. The yellow mist on the water roiling like a caldron and stains the ground around me an acid burnt red. The chemical soup that the state allows to be mixed for a few dollars on the barrel is an outrageous stew of potent acids and corrosive bases, exotic amine dyes and chlorinated solvents; chemicals typically isolated from one another in a factory reactor vessel under temperature and pressurized containment. In the open pit, though, all these chemical reactions bubble into the open air on waves of deadly gas while the heavier solvents seep deep into the mountainside and its groundwater that flows downhill, creeping towards the drinking water wells behind the houses through fissures in the bedrock.
In the ravine below I see the outline of the chemical flood traced in a serpentine sinusoidal wave down the hill, the highwater mark imprinted as stains upon the houses, the backyard depressions where it’d pooled into putrid ponds now dry but filled with a crust of bilious green and purple dust.
“Hey man, what’s happening?”
Startled from my reverie, I turn and see a thin young man walking towards me in a charcoal-grey pinstripe suit, oxblood loafers, startling white oxford shirt, and an oversized green bowtie. His hair is fashionably longish but conservative, just over the ears and greased back from the forehead in ripples like a baleen whale belly, his teeth are brilliant white in a wide smile that is so lawyerly and mendacious that I feel like shoving him off the cliff. Through the goggle-eye lens in my respirator he looks like a giant grey toad munching on a grasshopper.
“You must be Dr. Thornton from The Stockton Group,” he says. “This I deduce from the fact that you’re the only person on this shithole of a mountain who’s not wearing overalls or a peaked cap on backwards.”
I pull the respirator off and extend my hand, say, “Yes, you must be Mr. Ptarmigan from Duns and Goodman?”
“Yep, that’s me! They call me Billy. What’s with the gas mask? The guys at the gate told me it was safe out here.”
“Safe is a relative term, Billy. As you can smell, you get a slight burning sensation in your nostrils up here, as opposed to your office or even farther down the mountain.”
“Should I be wearing one? My boss said there was nothing to be afraid of,” he asks, his eyes swiveling from the trucks releasing their streams of colored wastewater a hundred yards away as he steps backwards towards the safety of his Caddy parked in a green puddle that I figure is hexavalent chromium leaching up from the underlying soil.
Putting on my best courtroom voice, the one I use to soothe a judge into believing in my client’s innocence versus the one I used to jack up a jury’s indignation for a maximum payout, I say, “No, I think you’ll be OK. That is, if we avoid the lagoon area and stay on-site for only a short while.”
But when I see this doesn’t assuage the look of terror, I add, “As I said, all risks are relative. A few aspirins will make your headache go away but a whole bottle will shut your liver down. A few minutes up here won’t kill you.”
“Oh, great. I’d hate to think my nads were getting toasted.”
“So, what do you think? Do we have a case for minimizing our client’s exposure? Based on you best professional judgment, of course?” he adds nodding at the ravine that runs down into the Glen Avon neighborhood below us.
“Well, as I understand it there are three thousand eight hundred plaintiffs down there alleging gross negligence and willful harm from poor operations and maintenance of this facility, which resulted in a catastrophic break in the impoundment on Waste Lagoon No. 3. That’s the one over there, the one with the ugly concrete Band-Aid poured into the fissure.”
“That right! The site operators say the treatment plant that draws the liquids out of the lagoons for incineration or coagulation into sludge was offline and that a three-day rainstorm, something about an El Nico in the Pacific, filled the lagoon faster than they could pump it into a storage tank.”
“El Niño. Not Nico.”
“What’s the diff?”
“An El Niño is a warming trend in the Pacific Ocean due to a slowing of the tropical equatorial current. It occurs every dozen years or so and starts around Christmastime when Christ was born, that’s why they call it El Niño, which means The Little One in Spanish. The warm air causes lots of precipitation to move on land with the prevailing easterly winds into southern California.
“Cool! I never knew.”
“Well, anyone with a brain who designs and permits hazardous waste facilities should know that putting a waste lagoon on top of a mountain in an El Niño area was playing dice with nature.”
“So, you’re saying it was Mother Nature, right? Which legally is an Act of God! That’s precluded from coverage under our client’s policy? Right?”
“Not exactly. The odds are that the operators should have known they’d get a bad year occasionally and a lagoon overflow. They should have built in operational contingencies to address the worst-case conditions.”
“You’re talking about the MacIntel Waste Group who built and runs the treatment plant, right? And not our client who owns the land.”
I look at Ptarmigan and think, here comes the dance.
Looking sharply at him in his thousand-dollar suit, his lawyer’s uniform, I realize he looks a little bit like his namesake, the Rock Ptarmigan, whose seasonal camouflage is greyish breast and head with white wings that help it blend into its rocky habitat. Unfortunately, it’s loud crocking mating song betrays the camouflage for the sake of a good screw.
“Counselor let me put it this way. This lawsuit is a cluster fuck. Whoever put this waste lagoon on the top of a mountain is a cretin. This won’t be part of my prepared testimony, unless some smart lawyer asks me the right questions on the stand and then I’ll be required to answer honestly and in my best professional expert opinion. My best guess is the morons who sited this facility back in the 1950s got their palms greased figuring the land was worthless and no one would cry wolf over dumping a lot of crap out of sight up here that would cost ten times as much to dispose of downhill, that is if you followed the rules and treated it like the deadly poison it is. Nobody figured back then, what with suburban sprawl in the 50s and 60s, that the town would creep up the ravine for cheap housing.”
“You wouldn’t say that on the stand, would you?” Ptarmigan said, his face devolving into a hurt puppy cringe.
“I don’t think they’ll ask me. I’m the toxicologist and not an engineer or a geologist. But you never know what a plaintiff’s attorney might ask. If pressed, I’d have to admit that the damage could have been foreseen and the exposure minimized with the expenditure of a few bucks, which is much lower than the amount our client might have to pay in settlement for this flood.”
OK, that’s fair, but we’ll have to go over your potential responses to all avenues of cross examination by opposing counsel in our prep sessions.
“Yeah, I know the drill.”
“Great and now that you’ve been on-site and deflected any attack plaintiff’s counsel might bring up on our expert being in the dark about site conditions, can we get the hell out here?”
“Oh, I’ve had an eyeful. And hell is a delightful place compared to this,” I say, nodding at the bubbling lagoon and the stained pathway downhill.”
III. The Public Meeting
The question asked is simple, “Could living next to the Acid Pits cause cancer?” I stifle a sigh so as not to look too blasé at a question I’d heard so many times before at similar public meetings, pull a strand of hair back over my ear as I gather my thoughts. The woman at the podium in the Town Center auditorium is dressed in plain, everyday clothing, a woman with a strong hard chin and a short bulldog neck, dull blue eyes above a stubby nose, short and stout but not corpulent.
I look down at my feet behind my own podium on the stage, the few feet of height like Hadrian’s Wall to keep the barbarians at bay, and then up at the crowded auditorium. I’ve already prepared a response to that specific question, feel confident in my deliberated approach but hesitate just the same. Through the dozen high windows along the hall, I see the glistening rain falling in the darkening sky outside like confetti across a disconnected TV screen; my mind begins to drift, the street lamps glow in the parking lot like orange-haloed jack-o-lanterns on sticks, the room hot and thick like a sauna from the mist of the wet woolen clothes on the febrile crowd seems to contract towards me.
It is an hour into the public meeting on the State’s plan to clean up the Acid Pits. A dozen residents from the surrounding neighborhood have already vented about the decades of stink and corruption coming from the waste disposal facility at the top of the mountain and how one night, when they were all abed, the pits collapsed in a rain storm and sent a torrent of hazardous waste ripping though the arroyos and canyons, filling their bedrooms with a flood of corrosive and cancer-causing chemicals.
I keep a bland face through all their tormented tales, feel it my job to listen and not judge. That is the hardest part. Listening to the poor victims of environmental catastrophes and not take it personal. I’ve spent many years in the enviro business at other meetings being cast as the bad guy, the indifferent hired hand, the scientist for sale in the rumpled suit come to explain why my client isn’t at fault, looking to blame others to reduce the financial costs. And despite the accusations, it is that simple. The more money I save my clients, the more valuable I become to them, and the more money I make. You lay down with dogs, as the saying goes.
I look more closely at the standing questioner amidst the seated audience. Her one question. One bit of indignation. I admire her and pity her, feel her need for an explanation about her child’s infirmity extremely important, while my own need to obfuscate is both shameful and sad. She’s holding the microphone like David with a sling before Goliath, ready to take down the corporate giant with one well-placed pebble.
I say, “we can’t evaluate the health risks posed by the flood until we finish our analysis of the mud left behind in your yards and houses and in your bloodwork to see if there are any associations with each case history, the chemicals released during the flood, and any known toxicity and types of exposures whether they be inhalation, ingestion or dermal.”
I say this in my well-tailored, plaid-brocaded, science-speak, hoping the meandering threads of my non-explanation will keep the definitive answer in the back of my throat from coming out:
Of course, you idiot! Did you think living downstream of a factory that takes industrial waste and incinerates it and sends plumes of acrid smoke down on your clotheslines and into your kitchens wouldn’t eventually get you? And these suits behind me from the company; the law firms sent to protect them, the government stooges who drooled at the chance to make some tax money, or line their own pockets off the deal; do you think they care about you? The fix is in, honey. Live with it or die!”
A groan goes up from the audience to my non-answer, some two hundred strong, all looking up at me with grimaces of disgust, some booing, others flipping me the proverbial bird as the next interlocutor steps up to the microphone and the poor woman I’d confronted sits down with an angry shrug of frustration and hugs from sympathetic neighbors.
“My name is Dr. William Howard and I’m an environmental chemist and a toxicologist hired by the Glen Avon community organization to evaluate their exposure from the facility,” he says, letting me know he’s got my number and a drab, meaningless statement won’t shut him up. “I understand that the owner of the facility has hired you, Dr. Thornton, to evaluate the fate, effects, and risks of chemicals released from the facility during the flood event. We understand that an undertaking of this magnitude with the sampling of over a hundred households for soil, dusts, groundwater, and residual material can take a long time to get through a quality assurance program and the drafting of a detailed report with recommendations for remedial cleanup. However, also know that the government could declare an emergency and authorize a rapid and immediate cleanup. That is, if the risks to the residents of this community are high, especially for children. However, the government has decided to let the owner of the facility do all the sampling and analysis which is taking too long for an emergency declaration. Would you agree?”
“I hate to sound like a broken record but until I get the data back and calculate exposure times for the community, anything I opine would be mere speculation.”
“Corporate hack! Flunky! Baby killer!” voices from the back of the auditorium sweep over me as a coterie of protesters stand up and rip their shirts off, baring chests and arms covered in stage paint to look like tumors and brown-green bruises, representations of an industrial skin disease called chloracne, which is caused by exposure to chlorine-based solvents.
And as these interlocutors are forcibly hauled out of their seats and propelled into the hallway by the local cops, the fellow at the microphone continues as if nothing untoward has happened. I figure he’s in on the demonstration.
“But based on your professional experience, Dr. Thornton, because we stipulate that you are a professional expert witness for the insurance companies, and we know that you’ve testified at dozens of toxic exposure cases, not to mention your previous work at the US Government’s Center for Disease in Atlanta, because of all this, it makes you the perfect person to surmise how this might turn out based on the facts already known. Should the government declare an emergency and start cleanup and health screening immediately?”
The bastard must bring that up. The cases, so many cases; the Three River Chemical case where children drank well water for years from a wellfield by a local chemical company; the chromium factory who donated their reactor still-bottoms as landfill for baseball fields and playgrounds in Jersey City; the pesticide manufacture who hired college kids in Chicago to go inside their reactor vessel and clean them out with mops and buckets with no protective hazmat gear on; and of course the infamous Saginaw Sewage Treatment Plant case where the county clerk got paid off to let liquid wastes go into a public stormwater system, which exploded and incinerated an entire block of homes and their sleeping inhabitants. All these cases flow behind my eyes as I look at the crowd, upturned faces expectantly waiting for me to confirm their rampant fear and admit that it is far worse than they’ve ever imagined.
Instead, I say, “No one knew the dam would break.”