A Haunting Past: Fenced In

FENCED-IN-THUMB

The following photos were taken of residents and pets living directly along the fence of the Cabot/Koppers Superfund site in Gainesville, Fla., an area haunted by decades of toxic pollution.

Roy Hale Geiersbach, 61, has lived along the fence since 1996. “Don’t be surprised if I gotta cough,” he said, “I’ve been fighting pneumonia and cracked ribs.” There used to be a well in his yard, which he drank from until 2007, when he found out it was contaminated with industrial toxins. Geiersbach takes 27 prescription medications for a variety of ailments, including skin cancer, cardiovascular problems and diabetes. “Look outside,” he said. “See the oak trees? Do you see any squirrels? There are none because they eat the acorns and drop dead. Everything here is dying.”

For two years, Mary Ann Jones has lived along the fence with her extended family, which includes three grandchildren. “I’m scared to death,” she said. “I used to love to garden, but now my plants are dead because I’m scared to touch them. We’re pretty much stuck here.” Jones is left to wonder whether her family’s ailments, which include skin rashes, headaches and frequent nosebleeds, are just a coincidence or signs of toxic contamination.

Aaron, 4, lives with his grandmother, Mary Ann Jones, along the fence of the Superfund site. He doesn’t fully understand the situation but knows that if he plays outside and drops something on the ground, he is not to pick it up under any circumstances.

Max and Peanut, the Jones family’s pets, cling to the fence outside. Small children and pets are particularly vulnerable to the effects of chronic dioxin exposure, which can lead to immune deficiency, reproductive problems and cancer.

Farinda O’Steen, 64, has lived along the fence since 1966. In 2006, she lost her husband to seven different types of cancer. Her son, 35, had three strokes before he was six months old. O’Steen believes her husband’s chromosomal damage spread to their children and grandchildren in the form of skin rashes, bone weakness, learning disabilities and other problems. She has lost faith in the EPA, the City Commission and even the activists who claim to represent the interests of people trapped near Koppers. O’Steen’s only goal now is to save money so she can start a new life with her family elsewhere.

Across the street from O’Steen’s house, a dog chained to a fencepost runs in circles and barks at passersby, releasing contaminated dust in the air.

A few blocks away from the actual fence of the Superfund site, another wooden fence in the Stephen Foster Neighborhood displays the notorious trademark of Koppers, Inc.

Update (July 2011): In June, The Gainesville Sun reported, “There is no evidence to suggest neighbors of the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site in Gainesville are at an increased risk of developing cancer, according to a Florida Department of Health analysis released Friday… The Stephen Foster Neighborhood Cancer Review compared numbers of cancer cases in that neighborhood’s census tract with the rest of the state between 1981 and 2000.”

In the same article, Anthony Dennis of the Florida Department of Health acknowledged that the study had limitations. On July 21, Anne Lowry, a former Hospital Director of Nursing and Investigational Drug studies, wrote an unpublished letter to the editors, calling the study “junk science” and criticizing the Sun for not being critical enough. “Proper and valid health studies take years,” she says. “They require thousands of people to be studied, tracking back over many generations, and must be designed and fully completed by scientists.”

To learn more, check out:
A Haunting Past, Pt. 1: How Gainesville Faces Decades of Toxic Pollution
A Haunting Past, Pt. 2: Gainesville’s Dirty Little Secret
A Haunting Past, Pt. 3: The Record of Decision
Feb. 18: City Commission Analyzes the EPA’s Record of Decision
The Superfund Art Project

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