The first time the man from Monsanto Co. knocked on Ruth Mims's door, he announced that her hogs were trespassing on company property. "We'll give y'all 24 hours to move those hogs," he warned her. She panicked. She had no room for hogs in her little yard.
But the man knocked again a few minutes later. Tell you what, he told Mims. We'll buy the hogs for $25 a head, plus a pint of white corn liquor. Mims didn't drink, but Christmas was coming and she was short on cash, so she said yes.
That was in December 1970. It wasn't until Mims told that story in federal court last April that she saw Monsanto's secret "Hog Analysis Results" from 30 years earlier. The company had dissected some hogs from the west Anniston area and found PCB levels as high as 19,000 parts per million. There were no legal limits then, because the idea that PCBs could end up in hogs was pretty new, but that would be more than 90,000 times the legal maximum in some states today.
"Nobody ever told me!" Mims shouted in an interview. "I used to eat them hogs!"
Mims, a 70-year-old retired seamstress who still lives in her childhood home, is a community matriarch with a no-nonsense manner. She was the star witness for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought against Monsanto by 1,600 Anniston residents. According to testimony last spring, her blood had one of the highest PCB levels ever recorded for someone who had never worked with PCBs, and her yard had PCB levels that qualified for an emergency cleanup. Monsanto settled the case for about $40 million -- including $32,000 for Mims -- shortly after she took the stand.
Her story, in many ways, is the story of west Anniston, the story of life in a contaminated zone.
In the modest neighborhood tucked between Coldwater Mountain and an industrial corridor, children spent their lives outdoors. Mims used to walk along dirt roads, letting dust kick up between her toes. She used to splash and catch tadpoles in the Monsanto drainage ditch that ran behind her house. Her family raised cattle that drank from the ditch, and grew sweet potatoes, cabbage and squash in the moist land alongside.
They had a mud hole, too, for Alabama clay.
"I think most everyone in that neighborhood ate clay dirt," Mims testified. "Once you would start eating it, you came to crave it."
In 1996, Mims found out that her neighborhood, and her bloodstream, was saturated with PCBs. Now her community is emptying out, reprising in slow motion the evacuations of Love Canal, N.Y., and Times Beach, Mo.
And now she wonders: Did PCBs have something to do with six of her 13 siblings dying in childhood? Two other sisters died of cancer as adults; another lost both breasts to cancer. Mims is not exactly the picture of health, either. She can barely walk. She needs a nebulizer to help her breathe, though she has never smoked. She has high blood pressure, too. She lives on $392 a month from Social Security, and she can't afford all her medications.
"I was exposed to PCBs from the time I was born into the world right up until today," Mims said. "It's scary. It's like a death sentence."
But there are sicker 70-year-olds, which raises a question that company attorneys were too polite to ask Mims directly, but not too polite to hint at: If PCBs are so awful, why is she still alive? "Ms. Mims lives closer to our plant than anybody," attorney Jere White said in court. "Ms. Mims is the one who had the highest level of PCBs in her blood. But Ms. Mims does not make a claim for having any present diagnosed injury caused by PCBs."
Neither did any of the other plaintiffs in her case, or in any of the other cases Monsanto has settled. Instead, they filed "body burden" claims, citing their fears that their exposures could cause problems in the future. Why, Mims asks, would Monsanto have gone to such lengths to cover up its activities in Anniston if PCBs were harmless?
"I can't prove PCBs made me sick," Mims said. "But I know it in my bones."
Unless, she said, Monsanto's mercury made her sick.
Now she's hoping that a lawyer -- perhaps Johnnie Cochran, who drew one of the largest crowds ever seen in Anniston when he spoke to potential clients in August -- will file a mercury case. She says the $18,000 she cleared from the PCB case after paying taxes and her attorneys isn't enough for a new home. And after 70 years on McDaniel Road in west Anniston, Mims wants out.
"It's not a neighborhood anymore," she said. "It's just an empty place with PCBs."
-- Michael Grunwald