I’m in Boaz, Sand Mountain, with a friend going to the local pain clinic. The waiting room is filled with middle-aged, rural/small-town, working-class whites who generally look in poor health. A crowded waiting room full of oxygen tanks and people who are either too obese or too thin, with few falling in-between. An extra-wide chair about twice the normal size is provided for the morbidly obese.
Looking out the window, trucks from OK Foods and Tyson Poultry rumble non-stop down Route 431. Nearby poultry plants a block long and grain silos dot the highway. The poultry industry is the main employer in Marshall County, though now the front-line workers are all Latino and Haitian. Sometimes, you can even get stuck on 431 behind trucks carrying chickens cruelly crammed in stacked cages, feathers and manure flying off the back.
I’ve heard several times from people living in Sand Mountain communities such as Guntersville, Albertville and Boaz claim that the water “makes you sick.” Could the presence of so-many poultry plants with their inevitable run-off have something to do with it?
If so, the forces stonewalling any regulation or accountability will be formidable, judging from the recent scandal involving secret industry payoffs to Oliver Robinson, a Black Democrat and the then-Birmingham NAACP president (to their credit, the local NAACP forced him to resign). Industry funneled laundered tens of thousands of dollar in payments to Robinson who set up a “community” campaign encouraging residents near a toxic water dump not to cooperate with the EPA declaring a Superfund site because it was a just a “plot” to lower home values for poor Black residents, with the insinuation this was another case of government sponsored racism.(1) If this can happen in a large city such as Birmingham under media spotlight and with a layer of activists, what would happen in smaller cities and semi-rural areas without clout?
The 3M Corporation in Decatur shows what happens. 3M has illegally dumped toxic waste into the Tennessee River near Decatur, a blue-collar city of forty thousand, for years with no response from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), even though 3M informed ADEM of the discharges. (2) No wonder in even smaller, mostly white working-class towns like Boaz and Albertville, no one speaks out and people learn to accept life stoically, with few expectations but Bibles at hand.
Across from me sits a man who looks like a Satyr out of Greek myth wearing a “Trump: Make America Great in 2020” hat. Another man keeps going to the reception desk to use hand sanitizer. Several women at the opposite end of the waiting room reminisce about working at a now-shut Marshall County factory making ball bearings. I only hear small snatches of their conversation though because the general din drowns them out.
The men sit alone or else talk one-on-one. But unlike the men, the women talk collectively, six or more at a time. Several had or have spouses in nursing homes. “When you’re sent there, you’re there to die. They served my husband pinto beans and dried corn bread all the time.”
The women then discuss their problems with opiates, the difference between liquid and pill morphine (the consensus among them is that the liquid form is “worst”), and inevitably, their children’s or other relatives’ addictions.
The conversation shifts to the pros and cons of Percocet versus Nortab and the generic versus brand name (one woman swears there’s a difference). “It” – I can’t hear which she is talking about – “calms my nerves down more.” As the waiting room thins, conversation drops off as there is no longer a critical mass. The group-in-formation reverts to seriality, to use Sartre’s terms from “The Critique of Dialectical Reason.” Those left sit silently, lost in private thoughts or, bored, repetitive thumb-clutched cell phones.
But then one of the women from the earlier collective discussion comes out from the examination rooms, waiting for her husband. She sits next to me and strikes up a conversation. No one else looks up or joins in, but at least there is some human connection in the waiting room now. She’s 65 years old, with blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing pastel polyester shorts and blouse. Says she feels lucky to be alive because all her brothers and her father died in their fifties from heart attacks. Grew up in a large family, with six brothers; she was the only girl. The family moved to rural Florida when she was six. They were so poor they couldn’t afford shoes and at seven, she was working part-time odd-jobs in summer to pay for clothes to go to school in fall.
Growing up in an all-male household toughened her to life’s disappointments. War and cowboy movies were her main entertainment. Her father said never to be dependent on a man and that she must always earn her own money. Later, she got married and moved to Boaz, because her husband grew up there. Yet she couldn’t find a job – when she went to the local employment office, they told her “we take care of our own first.”
The hostility to outsiders in small-town Boaz blocked all opportunities. She said she was on the “verge of suicide” – her specific words – when their landlord intervened and landed her a job at the local shuttle-mill (textiles), where she worked for 34 years. I asked her if that was hard work, because it sounded like it was, and she said “yes” and proceeded to describe in precise detail everything performed on the production line. She showed me the faded scars from the shuttles smashing into her arms.
Then her husband came out, oxygen tank in tow, and as she left to help him to the car, she turned and smiled, saying “Have a blessed day.”
1. The tangled, sordid story worthy of a B-movie script can be read in this article: Washington Post. (April 24th, 2019).”The betrayal: How a lawyer, a lobbyist and a legislator waged war on an Alabama Superfund cleanup” Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/the-betrayal-how-a-lawyer-a-lobbyist-and-a-legislator-waged-war-on-an-alabama-superfund-cleanup/2019/04/24/834087ae-4c1a-11e9-9663-00ac73f49662_story.html?utm_term=.636305684d46
2. WHNT (June 19th, 2019). “State of Alabama Permitted 3M to Release Toxic Chemicals Into the Tennessee River, Records Show.” Retrieved from https://whnt.com/2019/06/19/state-of-alabama-permitted-3m-to-release-toxic-chemicals-into-tennessee-river-for-years-records-show/