Uncle Sam’s Dioxin Cover-Up

July 19th, 2011

By Jan Barry

Toxic SubstancesVietnam and New Jersey, despite the vast distance between them, share a deadly link. Both places, lushly beautiful this time of year, were poisoned by United States government actions regarding one of the most toxic chemicals, dioxin.

In Vietnam, dioxin was widely spread as a contaminant in forest-killing Agent Orange herbicides that the US government failed to warn Vietnamese and American soldiers could be deadly to their health. In New Jersey, where Agent Orange was manufactured at a Newark chemical plant and the herbicides were sprayed along power lines and elsewhere for years, the feds failed to warn Americans at home that their health could be endangered by exposure to a widespread substance in our daily environment.

A new documentary, Mann v. Ford, that opened on HBO television channels this week highlights the painful reality for a Garden State community that was poisoned despite government assurances that safety measures were in place to protect people’s health from industrial pollution. In a stunningly symbolic scene, two leaders of the contaminated neighborhood walk along a path beside the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington on their way to the Capitol Building, their reflected figures weaving in and out among the long columns of names of soldiers who died in the war.

The film focuses on a lawsuit by residents of Ringwood, NJ who sued Ford Motor Company over cancer and other illnesses that beset many of their families after lead-based paint sludge and other industrial waste from a car-assembly plant was dumped near their homes. The dumping occurred in 1967-71, during the height of the war in Vietnam. Like soldiers in Vietnam, residents of the former iron mining community where the dumping occurred were long in the dark as to the hidden dangers of dioxin and other toxic substances.

Besides lead, arsenic, benzene, PCBs and other hazardous chemicals that EPA has determined were found in the Ringwood dump site area, the film shows environmental investigators for the residents’ lawyers testing for and finding dioxin in some homes and in the blood of some of the residents decades after the dumping occurred. Much is made by the attorneys how this can prove that residents were exposed to plumes of dioxin-laden air pollution when dump sites burned for weeks, spewing acrid smoke through the mountainside community.

Discussing why the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry hadn’t tested the Ringwood community for dioxin during initial investigations into potential health effects of the hazardous waste dumping, an environmental investigator says in the film: “There was a document that says you don’t have to sample for dioxin. That was about 1986 or ’87.”

This information about what wasn’t done properly and what was later found was never presented in court. The lawsuit against Ford was settled out-of-court, at the apparent direction of a state judge, shown in the film setting insurmountable requirements for presenting the health problems of more than 600 Ringwood residents and former residents.

It was not the first time the judicial system sidestepped holding an accounting of the government’s role in failing to protect the public from dioxin and other hazardous chemicals. A mass action lawsuit by Vietnam veterans in the 1980s against chemical companies that made Agent Orange for the US military was also settled out of court, under the direction of a federal judge.

Like the Ringwood residents, the Vietnam vets wanted to present evidence they and their lawyers had gathered. Instead, they were offered a few thousand dollars each to drop legal actions and go away. So the lid on health information the veterans sought to put on the record was lifted, not by lawyers or government actions, but by an angry high-ranking veteran.

Unraveling an Official Cover-Up

“Elmo R. Zumwalt 3d, son of the admiral who ordered the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and who was exposed to the defoliant himself, died of cancer today at his home. He was 42 years old,” The New York Times reported in August 1988. “In an article published in The New York Times Magazine on Aug. 24, 1986,” the obituary added, “the younger Mr. Zumwalt said: ‘I am a lawyer and I don’t think I could prove in court, by the weight of the existing scientific evidence, that Agent Orange is the cause of all the medical problems – nervous disorders, cancer and skin problems – reported by Vietnam veterans, or of their children’s severe birth defects. But I am convinced that it is.’”

Stunned by his son’s death, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. investigated the available studies and concluded, in a comprehensive 1990 report to the Department of Veterans Affairs, that there actually was sufficient scientific evidence to link various cancers and birth defects with dioxin. But, he found, this information had been deliberately concealed by federal officials.

“Unfortunately, political interference in government sponsored studies associated with Agent orange has been the norm, not the exception. In fact, there appears to have been a systematic effort to suppress critical data or alter results to meet preconceived notions of what alleged scientific studies were meant to find,” Zumwalt stated, citing examples of various agencies manipulating data and suppressing information about health effects of dioxin exposure.

“The flawed scientific studies and manipulated conclusions are not only unduly denying justice to Vietnam veterans suffering from exposure to Agent Orange,” Zumwalt said in a quote circulated in a US Veterans Dispatch report in November 1990. “They are now standing in the way of a full disclosure to the American people of the likely health effects of exposure to toxic dioxins.”

Years before Zumwalt’s scathing report, skeptical officials in New Jersey created an Agent Orange study commission in the early 1980s which found that—contrary to federal government assertions—dioxin could be found in Vietnam veterans’ bodies years after the war. As reports of long-suppressed health studies about dioxin exposure piled up, Congress in the early 1990s mandated that the VA treat or pay compensation to Vietnam veterans for a number of cancers, other illnesses, and their children with spina bifida. The list of illnesses associated with dioxin exposure has since grown substantially, and includes many if not most of the illnesses that beset the Ringwood neighborhood nearly surrounded by Ford dump sites.

Another Smoking Gun

During the time that the younger Zumwalt was frustrated that “existing scientific evidence” wasn’t sufficient to prove in court what he knew had poisoned him in Vietnam, a group of federal officials was busy trying to cover up an environmental bombshell.

“In August 1987, [a] report, entitled ‘No Margin of Safety’ and published by Greenpeace, burst like a bomb on the pulp and paper industry and its regulators within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Evidence gleamed from thousands of pages of the EPA’s own documents demonstrated that pulp mills were spewing dioxins into the air and water, creating … a public health emergency,” noted an article published in Greenpeace magazine in 1989.

“But that was only the beginning. Someone inside the American Paper Institute (API), the paper manufacturer’s trade organization, saw the report and sent a collection of documents to Greenpeace. These documents substantiated [activists’] charges that senior EPA officials and the industries the agency was supposed to regulate were working together to limit public knowledge about the hazards of dioxin and a host of other dangerous chemicals. According to US District Judge Owen M. Panner, the documents revealed an agreement ‘between the EPA and the industry to suppress, modify or delay the results of the joint EPA/industry [dioxin] study or the manner in which they are publicly presented.’”

Twenty years later, an attorney for the Ringwood residents said in frustration in the documentary that it would be very difficult to prove that Ford was primarily responsible for the residents’ health problems. That may well be true. The US government was supposed to have been in charge of enforcing environmental protection laws, not outsourcing enforcement to industrial polluters. Yet, as the Greenpeace article warned, by the late 1980s it was becoming apparent from various health reports the EPA was sitting on that potentially dangerous levels of dioxin were being found in fish downstream from paper mills and in paper towels, coffee filters and baby diapers, among other common household products made with bleached wood pulp.

Other ways that dioxin can get into the environment, Greenpeace reported in 1989, include: “Municipal incinerators, for example, produce dioxins when they burn garbage containing chlorinated plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Dioxins are also unwanted by-products in the manufacture of chlorinated chemicals, such as Agent Orange and the wood preservative pentachlorophenol (PCP).”

The missing element in the Ringwood pollution story—which has toxic dumping counterparts in communities across America—is a Congressional hearing where facts are presented under oath. As details about EPA’s lax oversight of Ford’s handling of its hazardous waste cleanup responsibilities in Ringwood appeared in news articles in 2005, New Jersey’s Environmental Protection Commissioner requested a criminal investigation. It never happened. Why not?

Another, vital missing element is for a knowledgeable insider to come forth and, like Admiral Zumwalt did on Agent Orange, bang some bureaucratic heads together until they get the job of protecting the public from dioxin and other toxic substances and helping the injured done right.

For more information:

Department of Veterans Affairs Report, gulfwarvets.com
“White Wash: The Dioxin Cover-Up,” planetwaves.net
“HBO details Ramapoughs’ fight against Ford tonight,” northjersey.com

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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