In 1988-1989, I taught at Humboldt State University in the redwoods of northern California. Before returning to the EPA in Washington, DC, where I worked from 1979 to 2004, I visited Carol van Strum in Tidewater, Oregon.
Carol, and her husband, a Vietnam War veteran, Paul Merrell, lived in a remodeled garage, the remnant of a huge house burnt in 1978. The burning house killed Carol’s four children. She suspected that a killer employed by the industry set her house on fire.
Carol, plain like a peasant and smart and dynamic like a leader in protracted guerrilla warfare, loved to talk about her struggle against the poison merchants and two government agencies she blamed for the trouble she has had with forest sprays: the US Forest Service and the EPA.
In 1983, she published a book describing her fight to stop toxic forest sprays, A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights. The publisher of this book, Sierra Club, stopped listing and promoting it.
Neither Carol van Strum nor Paul Merrell had any remnants of respect for the federal government or the industry.
Their home, however, was full of the joy of parrots, chicken, geese and ducks. One of their three dogs, a black cocker spaniel with beautiful soft silk hair, slept at my feet both nights I stayed at their home.
Carol’s garage-home was at the foot of a wooded mountain next to the Alsea River. This is in the general neighborhood where, in the late 1970s, a group of women, including Melyce Connelly, were having a high rate of miscarriages because of their exposure to dioxin-contaminated herbicides. Carol owned 20 acres of land forested with alder and oak. Five rivers run through her “Alder Hill Farm” in the Five Rivers Valley, surrounded by the Siuslaw National Forest.
The US Forest Service, according to Paul, subsidized a helicopter company to spray its forests – the same helicopter company that killed coca leaves in Peru and Mexico with the defoliant paraquat; the same company that worked for the CIA in Vietnam. Paul theorized that the Forest Service was also employing agents to spy on him and Carol van Strum.
Carol and her husband had a pretty good understanding of both the science and practice of environmental protection, all born of personal suffering. They defended nature and human rights, becoming models for resisting the outrageous behavior of corporations and local, state and federal governments.
That’s why the reissuing, in 2014, of “A Bitter Fog” as an e-book by Carol Van Strum is very significant. Mary O’Brien, a responsible scientist and environmentalist, wrote the Foreword to Carol’s e-book. O’Brien explained that, since “A Bitter Fog” was published in 1983, practically nothing has changed to make the lives of Americans better or to lessen the timber companies’ and large farmers’ environmental onslaught. This is especially true in Oregon where the polluters are even protected by state law.
“Now, in late 2014, it’s the same, seemingly idyllic [Oregon] Coast Range and it’s the same scene of babies, children, men, women, cats, chickens, and deer suddenly sickened or dead after herbicide soups have been dumped on them,” O’Brien wrote.
Carol added a chapter to her 1983 book, essentially connecting a few important dots from 1983 to 2014. She talked about continuing industry and government malfeasance and cover-ups. But the focus of her riveting narrative is the short life of Melyce Connelly who died on July 4, 1989, at the age of thirty-two from brain, lung, and breast cancer. Carol accuses the timber companies and the government of murder – “The Murder of Melyce.”
Melyce was simply minding her child, supporting him by raising vegetables in her small garden in the Five Rivers Valley. But a timber company poisoned Melyce: dumping poisons on her water supplies, house, and garden. All of her “young chicks and ducklings” died; her garlic fields and garden dried up; her “six-month old son developed persistent, bloody diarrhea.”
Meanwhile, she heard the county commissioner on the radio denouncing marijuana growers for the 1979 banning of 2,4,5-T by EPA. Melyce was so outraged she drove fifty miles to the county office in Newport, Oregon. She confronted the commissioner with the frozen carcasses of her animals and the bloody diaper of her baby.
“Sir,” she said, according to Carol van Strum, “you tell me those ducklings died from smoking… marijuana… this child has bloody shits day after day from smoking too much marijuana.”
The commissioner apologized, but Melyce got sick and lost her life. Nothing changed.
The timber companies keep spraying toxic stuff because the EPA uses “risk assessment” in approving that stuff. The risk assessment classifies the risk of getting cancer from pesticides as “negligible.”
“The manufacturers, users, and regulators of these poisons know… that some people will die when exposed, making them … guilty of premeditated murder…. As ‘persons’ under the law, corporations can be tried for murder… This will only happen when risk assessment’s ‘negligible’ form of murder is no longer acceptable to society,” Carol van Strum wrote.
In a metaphysical sense, “society” is responsible for this country’s environmental tragedy. But most Americans don’t even know what the EPA does, much less have an understanding of “negligible risk.” The responsibility for environmental poisonings lies on the shoulders of very few people in this country. Americans never approved biocides, risk assessment or the fraudulent science behind “regulation.”
Industry has captured the EPA though the offices of Congress and the White House. That’s why the EPA is misusing science for legitimizing the use of pesticides and, often, the poisoning of innocents. The American people and, especially, environmental organizations, must wake-up to this tragic reality.
“A Bitter Fog” is an important book. Melyce Connelly keeps dying not merely in Oregon but all over the United States – and the world.