By: Anabelle Farnham, Communications Intern

Lee Ann Smith’s son was only 11 when he was diagnosed with a rare form of thyroid cancer. In fact, finding the cancer in the first place had been almost a mistake: Gabe had gone to get an MRI so that the doctors could check for scoliosis. When the scans came back, he was scoliosis-free, but a different mass had been discovered. 

As a devoted mother, Smith’s first priority became helping her son to heal. They lived in Asheville, TN and the closest location for his treatment was a 4-5 hour drive away. Over the next two years, she put her energy into helping her son to get better, until he was luckily declared cancer-free at the age of 13. 

“When I first got that call from the doctor who gave the results from the biopsy, it felt surreal. This was something that happened to other people, not to me or my family.”

Only after Gabe had recovered from the illness did Lee Ann start thinking more about why he might have gotten sick. The family had no medical history or genetic predispositions that indicated he could have been vulnerable to this form of cancer. They ate a healthy diet, and no one in their family smoked. Yet, Smith’s first thoughts were always questions of the concerned mother: “What could I have done better to prevent this?”

“There’s this tendency, I think, to say, ‘What could I have done to have prevented this?’…Short of choosing not to live where I lived…I don’t know that there was actually anything that we could have done.”

This cancer was no ordinary case, however. When Smith asked the doctors about what could have caused the cancer, their pediatric oncologist asked her if their family had ever been to Chernobyl. One of the known causes of thyroid cancer in children is high levels of radiation. This prompted Smith to think that the doctor was indicating an environmental issue could be the cause behind Gabe’s illness. 

With this new knowledge, Smith began to do more research. She discovered that the house her family was living in was only one mile away from a toxic site. At the site, high levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) were being pumped into the ground, evaporated into the air, and contaminating many people’s drinking water. The company, Chicago Telegraph Service (CTS), had abandoned the site in 1986. They had manufactured car and airplane parts in Asheville and used TCE as a degreaser in the process. 

When Smith made this discovery, she assumed that there were people who already knew and were taking action on it. Although CTS wasn’t functioning at that site specifically, they are still in operation even to today in other parts of the country. Surely someone was making sure they were paying for the mess they had left in the community? 

“When I found out about this, I thought that somebody was probably working to take care of it; that somebody was watching out for my health and the health of my children, the health of my family, the health of my neighbors…And as I found out more about it I discovered that not much at all was being done.”

But as Smith looked more and more into the situation, she realized that no clear action was being taken. What needed to be done was obvious to her: these chemicals were in their environment, threatening the health of the community around her and they needed to be removed. As an elementary school librarian, Smith would go to school in the county where she worked and teach kids in grades K-4. Who was protecting the health and safety of the children she worked with everyday?

“I kept thinking about these itty bitties I teach and I couldn’t give up, not just for my family, but also for them. Because it has got to get better.”

Smith began going to community meetings and found that there were other community members who knew about this situation because they had also gotten sick; many people had suffered from the same rare thyroid cancer as Gabe. However, on a federal level, the amount of people who were suffering was not being recognized. When the North Carolina Health Department in partnership with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) did a study, they found that there was no statistically significant number of people who were sick in the area. This is not unique to Asheville: ATSDR has conducted many health studies that depend on population density as a key factor to determining a location as having a “cancer cluster.” Because their town was not densely populated, the government entities around them were not declaring their suffering to be significant. 

Through these community meetings, Smith also learned that there was a history of the EPA working on the site. However, many of the people in these community organizations were angry at the EPA. The agency had not been effective at achieving a cleaner environment or protecting people’s health, and they had made many mistakes already. This ineffective action made people distrust the EPA and eager to find alternative solutions for approaching this site clean-up. 

While community organizers held anger towards the EPA for their inadequate response, Smith remained focused on accomplishing what she felt was most important: removing the toxic chemicals from the ground. She continued to recognize the EPA as the only entity with federal power to take them through this process. With the help of some community members that she recruited, and local non-profits such as Clean Water for North Carolina, she began to reach out to the EPA and seek partners within the agency that could help her achieve justice. 

Others in the community remained divided about the methods Smith was using. With their bad track record, people were unwilling to continue to pursue a clean-up through the EPA. Some community members felt so strongly that they would harass or even threaten Smith for the work that she was doing. One woman on the phone told her that she was “poisoning and killing” community members for working with the EPA. As though fighting CTS to take responsibility for their actions and spurring the EPA into meaningful action was not enough of a challenge, Smith was also faced with division in her community. 

“I had people actually come up and say to me ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing that? You’re never going to see clean up in your lifetime. You need to just give up now.’ …and I said ‘No, watch. We’re gonna get it.’”

Despite the conflicts with other community members, Smith’s work led to the area being declared a Superfund site in 2011. They were also able to write a technical assistance grant and hire a technical advisor who could help create more clear communication between the EPA and community by putting the more dense information from the EPA into digestible form. 

In the decade that followed the declaration of the Superfund site, the community was successful in developing and implementing two phases of removing the TCE from the ground. One strategy has been to put probes into the ground that heat up the soil and burn off the TCE. Secondly, they have been able to inject combative chemicals into the ground through a form of fracking that, when they come into contact with TCE, renders it inert. 

“I would love to be able to tell budding environmental activists, ‘oh my god, do it, its gonna be so easy and you’re gonna be so successful.” Unfortunately, that would be a lie. I can tell you that it’s gonna be hard. Find your support structure and lean on it.”

Although this site is on track to continue being cleaned up, Smith is still fighting today for justice. Most of the money that pays for clean-ups of sites like hers come from taxpayers dollars. In other words, Smith not only had to pay for all the treatment of her son Gabe, and her other son who later developed a bone tumor, but her money is also going into cleaning up a mess that she did not create. This is why she is a part of collaborating with CHEJ on our mission to reinstate the Polluter’s Pay Tax. To read more about this campaign and to support people like Lee Ann in their fight against corporations like CTS, check out this link: http://chej.org/makepolluterspay/ 

Photo Credit: POWER Action Group