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#230 - The Role Of Civil Disobedience, 23-Apr-1991

What is the role of civil disobedience in the grass-roots movement to
control toxics?

On April 4th in Freeland, Michigan, toxics activist Tom Adams, 29,
chained himself beneath the wheels of a parked railroad train, 25
gondola cars containing 2500 tons of contaminated soil, cleanup
residues from a train wreck and chemical fire at Freeland July 22,
1989. The soil was headed for burial the next day at a solid waste
landfill in Michigan. When workers arrived to move the train April 5th
they found Tom wrapped in 20 feet of hardened steel chain attached to
the tracks with half a dozen padlocks. Authorities broke two bolt
cutters and a saw before they got Tom loose. They let him off with a
warning. The train's owner, CSX Transportation, realized this train was
bound for trouble, and they moved it out of state. The train has been
traveling ever since, looking for a home (see map, from USA TODAY April
22, 1991, pg. A5).

Tom's group, the STORM Network--"a merry band of men and women serious
about protecting the Great Lakes"--tracked the train into Ohio using
high-tech methods they decline to describe. Four days later, Sunday
night, Tom chained himself to the train in Walbridge, OH, this time
using heavier chain. Authorities had to cut him loose with a blow
torch, and this time they charged him with disrupting public
transportation and vandalism--both felonies. Tom faced 11 years in
prison and $7,700 in fines.

The police incarcerated Tom in the Wood County Justice Center and he
immediately began a hunger strike to raise the ante.

The train is owned by CSX Transportation of Richmond, VA, which
operates a 19,700-mile railroad system in the East and Midwest. It was
their train, carrying chemicals to a Dow Chemical plant in Freeland,
that derailed July 22, 1989, spilling 11,500 gallons of acrylic acid,
21,000 gallons of mixed chlorosilanes, and 23,000 gallons of petroleum
naphtha, which ignited immediately and burned for over a week. Three
thousand people were evacuated from their homes.

Local citizens immediately grew alarmed at the way CSX and local
officials pretended all was well. A group formed, called TRACC--
Tricounty Residents for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination. TRACC
began paying close attention to chemical spills by trains in Michigan
and they found an average of one spill a month, more than half of them
in their threecounty area. "We began as citizens believing our
government was there to protect and serve us, and finally we came to
see that officials aren't interested in saving lives. They're just
not," says TRACC leader Kim Maxwell, 36, who was evacuated from his
home for 8 days. "I've got 2 little kids and the state health
department tried to pull the wool over our eyes from day one," he says.
"I can show you a video, taken seven days after the fire began, where a
state health official says the fire is out, the wreckage has been
removed, and the contaminated soil has been cleaned up." He goes on, "I
came to find out later the fire wasn't even out, the wreckage was still
all over the tracks, still leaking, and it was 18 months before they
cleaned up the chemicals." Maxwell says, "I had four years in the
military and they trained us to recognize propaganda. What CSX put out
from day one would have made Joseph Stalin proud."

What happened after that, as Maxwell tells it, was a lot of foot-
dragging by state agencies, a lot of fancy footwork by CSX
Transportation, and no satisfactory cleanup. "They could have cleaned
it up in two weeks back in '89," says Maxwell. "They kept delaying a
cleanup, meanwhile nature was washing the chemicals away through rain
and runoff. The longer they delayed, the less chemicals there were to
clean up. CSX was saving money every day they delayed," he says. "But I
live here," he says. "I've got my family here." He describes a holding
pond created to contain the chemicals. The dam broke several times, and
it was sometimes many weeks before it was repaired, he says. The pond
wasn't fenced, so children played by its edge.

Petroleum naphtha is a combination of aliphatic hydrocarbons,
naphthenic hydrocarbons, benzene, and aromatic hydrocarbons. Many of
these compounds are highly toxic and are known human carcinogens.

Chlorosilanes are a mixture of silicon, hydrogen, and chlorine. "The
silanes are reported to be highly toxic by inhalation, ingestion, or
skin contact," according to the Handbook of Toxic and Hazardous
Chemicals (Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes, 1981).

Acrylic acid is a corrosive material that causes skin and eye burns on

However, by the time the contaminated soil was ready to be shipped off-
site, the concentrations in the soil were low. CSX spokesperson Steve
Buser, a chemist, describes the soil on the train as "mildly
contaminated." State officials we interviewed agree with that

Under Michigan law, the soil was automatically classified as a legally
hazardous waste that had to be buried in a hazardous waste landfill. To
spare themselves the expense of such burial, CSX petitioned Michigan
authorities to designate the wastes "non- hazardous."

Throughout the fall and winter of '89-'90, TRACC and STORM members
opposed the "redesignation" of the waste from "hazardous" to "non-
hazardous." Under Michigan law, a solid waste can go to a Type II
landfill and a Type II landfill can be unlined and built in a sand and
gravel pit, offering no protection to the environment.

Finally, the state Department of Natural Resources decided on the basis
of chemical analyses and a risk assessment that the wastes should be
redesignated non-hazardous. That's when Tom Adams decided civil
disobedience was the only way to make the point that "mildly
contaminated" wastes shouldn't be buried in the ground for future
generations to absorb. The rest is history.

Toxics activists have vowed to carry on Tom Adams's fight. "We are
going to hound this train wherever it goes," says John Liebman, a
seasoned Greenpeace toxics campaigner from New Orleans who traveled to
South Carolina this past weekend to make his point.

Kim Maxwell of TRACC says, "We tried hard to work within the system, to
use the system for what it's made for." And how did that work out?
"Frankly, we couldn't get the attention of the governor, or any
national attention, 'til Tom chained himself to the tracks," he says.
Last Thursday--13 days into Tom's hunger strike--a judge threw out the
felony charges and Tom now faces 90 days in jail and a $700 fine. He
has started to eat but he won't pay a $300 bond, so he remains jailed,
awaiting trial.

Brian Hunt, a burly Greenpeace toxics campaigner from Ft. Lauderdale,
Florida, takes the long view. "You think about American history," he
says. "Nothing worth accomplishing has ever been accomplished without
civil disobedience. An end to slavery. An end to segregation. Stopping
atmospheric nuclear testing. Stopping nuclear power. People have had to
break the law to make a point about the bigger issues of right and
wrong. That's the way it is. If we think we're going to win this fight
to control toxics without civil disobedience, we're kidding ourselves,"
he says.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: citizen activism; freeland, mi; tom adams; hazardous
materials; csx; interstate waste trade; walbridge, oh; dow chemical;
accidents; evacuations; citizen groups; kim maxwell; petroleum naptha;
carcinogens; chlorosilanes; toxic substances; acrylic acid; steve
buser; landfilling; brian hunt;