Monday, April 13, 2009

The Surest Poison

I want to say something about Chester Campbell's The Surest Poison.

Sid Chance and Jaz LeMieux are fresh, new characters, and fun folks to follow. And I know something about the subject matter of the book: TCE and tracking down from whence it came. For twenty years I defended TCE pollution cases, as TCE was the most commonly used degreaser in the world up until the mid-eighties and it's found its way into the groundwater in many areas.

How did it get there? Sometimes from dumping, but usually from plant spills, leaking pipes or product stored outside.

And the chemical is interesting. While it's allegedly harmful to many systems in the body, it's like beer; it's not stored. It quickly leaves the body through urination. The original EPA mouse/rat studies which led to the "Possible Carcinogen" determination, were flawed, seriously flawed. The studys' flaws were similar to those which led to the erroneous determination that saccharin was cancer causing, which it took the EPA over thirty years to correct. Indeed, TCE used to be the decaffeinating agent in coffee. If you drank Sanka, you drank TCE. And it was used in the dry cleaning process. If you wore dry-cleaned clothing, you wore TCE.

But there's a more dangerous aspect to TCE than its immediate harmful affects on the body or even its effects over time. TCE changes its chemical composition, and when it does so, it evolves into much more dangerous chemicals, known cancer causing agents, agents like PCE or vinyl chloride. Allow TCE to percolate long enough in your ground water and you will find these chemicals there. And they can kill you. And this is just the groundwater. Soil gases, gas percolating upward, is also dangerous.

So Chester's spot on, and the problem with TCE cleanup is finding who to blame. Cleaning the groundwater, so it's free of these chemicals is very expensive. It requires pumping stations and filtration equipment. You have to draw the flow in, clean it and then disperse it so it flows naturally, not an easy thing to do. And in many cases, the party responsible for the TCE leaching into the soil and groundwater is dead or ceased operations many, many years ago. In some cases, the government is even responsible, because the government took over the operation of some plants during the Second World War. Chemical procurement records must be researched, aerial views, if they exist, must be studied, loan and property ownership records, and trucking company records. It's a tough job. We had a case in Rockford, Il where we found over eighty companies had used TCE during the period 1940-1980. The groundflow was from the industrial area into suburbs that didn't exist during most of that period. The cost of cleanup was in the hundred million dollar range. The cost and number of companies involved was so high, the city, in conjunction with the EPA, organized a special cooperative arrangement to manage cleanup and funding.

So the problems Sid and Jaz face in The Surest Poison are real. Many companies have gone bankrupt facing the prospect of TCE cleanup. The opportunity for crime is high.

Bravo, Chester, for bringing this to light and for the opportunity to meet folks like Sid Chance and Jaz LeMieux.


Chester Campbell said...

Thanks for explaining this, Ben. It's why Tim Hallinan said in his review, "The Surest Poison is a terrifically timely mystery about one of the most pressing problems of our era."

Anonymous said...

I first read your explanation on DorothyL and was dumbfounded. Many, many thanks for bringing this out.

There must be an award for this novel. Is it entered anywhere?

Pat Browning

Chester Campbell said...

I haven't entered it anywhere. It just came out.