The Chemical Plant Next Door
From the time I was eight until I was 10, I lived in a pea-sized town down the road from the chemical plant and the munitions factory. Buffalo, Illinois had a bank, a grocery store, a post office and a park. And enough houses to hold three hundred people. This was where we moved, a few miles from my grandparents, after we left Phoenix. My mother never wanted to come back to Illinois. Once she was there, she only spoke to the relatives, and when they were with us they seemed to mask the hole in her life.
I loved that town nearly as much as my mother hated it. She hated it so much that she never went outside except to get in her car and drive away. She sent me to the post office and the grocery store, had my dad do the yard work. She sat in the dark living room watching soap operas and folding clothes. The kitchen was for packing my father’s suppers. He worked swing shift—3 to 11 p.m.—or graveyard, the night shift. When he was gone, we would eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and carrot sticks. When he was home, we would have pork chops or the end of a roast. We tried not to spill the milk or sing at the table.
Anyway, it was the town that mattered. A town, or what it should be, is a community of hope. It’s bustle and defiance out here in nowhere. Buffalo was my sanctuary, my circle. Friends, school, church, street, sidewalk, lawn, bells. They were not artificial constructions. They were not just institutional and conformity-approving props. We need these places. I needed them.
Concerned grown-ups asked questions that I would dodge. I took their offerings of Bible verse and story and hid them beneath my bed, to be brought out at quiet times. I kept the letters from pen pals and the stamps from foreign countries and I told the man and woman at the post office some jokes. I ambled the sidewalks, looked up at the leaves, listened to mourning doves, chatted with pals on the steps of the church, rode my bike anywhere I wanted to go, even past the edges of the town. I never passed the tavern, and I avoided the stares from that weird (some said retarded) man who lived alone and spent his days on his porch. I played jacks, petted dogs, swapped notes. I learned to say dirty words, even though I had no idea what they meant. My boyfriend, Toby, gave me a gumball machine ring, a rectangular green stone set in bendable gold.
The town was heaven. Not that it was really that way. All is comparison and perspective—what I chose to see, what I didn’t have to know. I didn’t know about unemployment and pollution and the other weights that pushed under the people. I didn’t care about commodity prices and the sale of beans and hogs. The world was sun and dark, and I would choose my own gradations and ignore the rest.
Buffalo, this town where we lived, was right down the road from Borden Chemical.
Borden and Buffalo
When Mom got sick, I decided to dredge up the dirt about Borden. She didn’t link the floating fish to herself, but as her thoughts grew foggy, and she grew thinner, she kept coming back to the fish kill. She was sure Borden was the murderer. Was her body telling her something? I owed her some cause-and-effect explanation. I read books, tapped into environmental and scientific list serves, and watched documentaries. Whatever I could dig up about the chemical industry, I dug. Pesticides, herbicides, industrial chemicals, even cow shit: I know it all. Factories, coal tar, farms, sewage: put them all together, and beings die.
But Mom wanted to know about Borden Chemical. That bulbous monstrosity on Route 36. In looking there, I came across Buffalo again. I came across people. Those who I knew, whose fates were tied to the wind that blew vinyl chloride across their town. Why do we bring disaster upon ourselves? Embrace it, fund it, serve it? Facts don’t mean that much. It’s feeling that matters. It’s earth, the ground where we plant our feet. It’s what we do to compromise, what we ignore in order to stay in one place. To understand Borden, I’d have to understand the town that allowed the factory to stay: Illiopolis. And to understand Illiopolis, I’d have to go back to the town where I lived for two years: Buffalo. These were the towns nearest to Borden. I lived there. I drank that water and breathed the air. I had cancer, my mother and uncle died of cancer. Is this what fed the cells? Made us dizzy, made our joints creak, created multiplication inside that we couldn’t even feel until it was late and it had compromised our systems? In comprehending these places, I hoped to get a grip on death and rage and the dark side and sex and all that stuff that comes up in nightmares, as if by grasping it all with logic I could keep from being consumed. Maybe someone would stop it.
Nobody cares about rural people, though. Let’s be real about that. They’re the butt of jokes; they have no power. A friend who teaches in Illiopolis joked that everyone in the town is inbred. They all have the same last names. Uh-huh, I said. Tell me about it. Feuding strands of my cousins" family, the Pattons, wind all over Central Illinois. The inbreeding isn’t a matter of genetics, but of attitudes and ideas and career options and life choices that limit them to a 10-mile radius. Kids look to the chemical plant, figuring they can get a job there after they get married. They marry soon after they graduate high school, or even before. Some want to leave but lack opportunity or nerve, so they stay stoned, vandalize, fight, or maybe kill themselves driving too fast on the curving country roads.
All small towns are turned inward upon themselves: behind the times, idyllic, poor, happy, and at the mercy of whatever industry runs the place. Right at the literal center of Illinois, Illiopolis cropped up in 1833, when pioneers cleared the prairie grass and planted cabins. A fire wiped them out, leaving the land to weeds, until the railroad line from Springfield to Decatur made the town a loading point. The prairie was drained and there it appeared: farmland. Fed by decomposing roots, rich because for centuries it had been let be. Illiopolis grew along the tracks; by 1900 it had a railroad depot, grain elevators, a post office, a grocery store, a hardware store-mortuary combination (making it easy to hammer down the coffins), a lumber yard, blacksmith shops, two hotels, three churches, livery stables, a school, and, of course, a bar. Not a whole lot is different today, except that the shops that once serviced horses now service cars.
A white church with an elegant steeple looms over frame houses with added-on bedrooms. A ranch house huddles next to a rehabbed mansion, a trailer rests perpendicular to a beauty shop, a junkyard lurks up the hill from thin-walled family homes. Its bar proclaims Habits and Vices, a cavalier admission, a plainspoken truth. Johnson’s Grocery sits beside the Citgo gas station with its all-night stock of liquor, chips and cigarettes. In the Business District—you know it’s the business district because that’s what the signs tell you—is the bank and an antiques store crammed floor to ceiling with ceramic figurines and Depression glass. That’s it. Kids still drive around and around this "square" at night, swigging from beer cans in cup coolers. They honk at each other, swap joints, and screw in back seats. Then they settle down and get to the grinding work of factory shifts and child rearing. And when their children grow up, those kids drive around the square
After my parents died, I drove a couple times a week down Route 36, straight through Buffalo. It became familiar, like a rusted Chevy with bad sparkplugs. The change came not in design, but in wear. Like my parents, the town had gotten old, and it seemed to be on the verge of dying, too.
The gray one-story befits my father’s grimy years of commuting to Decatur’s Firestone plant. I want to hate my former home. I want to understand my mother’s furious depression. But although I can see that the house is ugly, it doesn’t seem ugly to me. Lilies of the valley once drooped in the shade at the side of the house, peony bushes and rhubarb grew beside the storm cellar, the laundry line ran from the house to the shed, and an alleyway provided a path where my friends and I walked barefoot. I imagine that these relics still remain. The old neighbor’s tended lawn, the tree that I climbed in the front yard, the holes that my brother and I dug with Tonka trucks. What kids remember.
Route 36 used to be the only road that linked the cities of Springfield and Decatur. This pitted two-lane takes you through or near a string of towns: Illiopolis, Lanesville, Mechanicsburg, Dawson, Buffalo, Riverton. As a child, I knew the road mostly as one that shouldn’t be crossed. The countryside around it is littered with faded cafes and junked VW vans, silos and leaning barns. Cattails and coreopsis droop in ditches, while stands of trees clump amidst nothing. Make-out roads stop at a field’s edge or a washed-away bridge. Folks live in the middle of nowhere because it’s cheap and they’re comfortable; as my mom said, "We don’t have to put on airs. I can go out without a bra on and I’m invisible," or, according to Grandpa, "I can scratch my ass and nobody’s going to take a picture." Along the road you"ll see a house grown over with vines and weeds, whatever’s visible needing a paint job, greeting visitors with a No Trespassing sign and a pit bull/hound. People keep a good distance.
Near the chemical plant, the view evolves from corn to boxcar. Abandoned train cars line the right side of the road, though the active tracks are on the left. On one car, someone has spray-painted this profound truth: Decatur Sucks. Spew can be seen in the sky miles before I see the factory. Bunkers and dilapidated buildings left from the munitions grounds announce the "industrial complex." Fencing higher than my head surrounds an array of pipes and wire and bulbous tanks and fences and stacks. KEEP OUT! PRIVATE! DANGER! warn the signs. As if anyone enters by choice. These jobs are necessities.
Borden’s specialties were resins and formaldehyde. The Illiopolis plant once produced my childhood friend, Elmer’s Glue, and a competitor to Saran Wrap called Resinite. Borden didn’t start out being one of the largest producers of plastics in the world. If you’re old enough, you may remember Elsie the Cow, the smiling mascot of Borden’s Dairy. When I was a six year old, living in the desert, Elsie represented everything good about the Midwest: a place of endless green, plentiful food, and kind relatives. I even had an aunt named Elsie. So imagine my sense of betrayal when I realized that Borden had gone from producing milk to producing chemicals. While it’s hard to imagine doing without plastic wrap, the fact is that it leaches into foods when microwaved. The white glue that we used in school is made with non-toxic levels of the same chemicals. The big product in Illiopolis now is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used in tile, plastic water pipes, siding and wire insulation. What goes into PVC? Vinyl chloride, a flammable gas, and vinyl acetate, a toxic gas. When they shoot into the air or get into the water, they cause everything from a bad cough to paralysis. Workers in plants that make the stuff have high rates of liver and breast cancer. Vinyl chloride stays in water for decades, where it is absorbed into fish flesh. The fish we ate on those glorious summer cookouts.
Borden Chemical has undergone some particularly colorful corporate transformations. In 1987, according to a spokesperson, it came under the ownership of Borden Chemicals and Plastics Limited Partnership (BCP), which is now twisting in the wind of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In April of this year, the Illiopolis plant was sold to Taiwan-based PVC-maker Formosa Plastics, which not only has a record of environmental violations in several states but was also tied to campaign finance scandals in the Clinton White House.
Chemicals were and still are dumped in rivers and wells and underground tanks and landfills, floating and settling all across the Sangamon Valley. Companies dodge environmental protection laws by getting waivers and exemptions. Since we need our conveniences, the wastes have to go somewhere—why not some hick’s backyard?
When the fish turned up dead, my relatives blamed Borden. But with so many companies and farms polluting the Sangamon River, we can never be sure. But Borden has an unenviable environmental record. It was even caught shipping 2,500 drums of highly toxic mercury waste to South Africa. The stockpiled drums leaked contaminants—a disaster that led to both criminal and civil investigations in South Africa.
At one of Borden’s biggest plants, in Geismar, Louisiana (home of BCP), according to Time magazine, a "witches" brew of toxic chemicals" descended not once, but several times. The chemicals that Borden reportedly released into the air were ethylene dichloride, vinyl-chloride monomer, hydrogen chloride, hydrochloric acid and ammonia. In 1994, three years before Geismar’s first toxic spew, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit accusing the company of illegal hazardous waste storage, contaminating groundwater, burning waste without a permit and neglecting to report chemical releases into the air. In 1998, without admitting wrongdoing, Borden settled for $3.6 million and agreed to spend $3 million to clean up the Louisiana water.
The Illinois Pollution Control Board exempted Illiopolis" Borden plant from many Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. Borden’s wastewater is still high in "total dissolved solids, or TDS"—all of the solid contaminants put together, like calcium, magnesium, iron, lead, nitrates, chloride and sulfate. This is twice as high as the average, and the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources says that these flows are carried downstream to the Sangamon River. The plant can legally dump 800,000 gallons of wastewater into the stream every day. In two miles, this water reaches the Sangamon. Because the area around the stream is wooded, locals hunt and fish there. EPA studies show the river from Decatur to Springfield to be especially toxic: the river where we caught fish, used water for crops, and walked when the currents were low. The river that one naturalist calls "a drainage ditch." Because the water runs low and bends, poisons gather, plants die, and invasive species bloom. Little is washed away.
In May of 1999, Borden Chemicals and Plastics did to Illiopolis what it did to Geismar, Louisiana: It released 500 pounds of vinyl chloride gas. An "accidental" release, they said. Ten years before this, in 1989, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office sued the plant for releasing the same gas 14 times over a four-year period. In response to the 1999 incident, Borden was forced to hold public hearings detailing an emergency evacuation plan. Not counting accidents, the plant routinely releases 65,000 pounds of vinyl chloride and 40,000 pounds of vinyl acetate into the Central Illi
nois air every year. Along with causing cancer, vinyl chloride is suspected of disrupting our hormones, which makes us—especially women and girls—vulnerable to all kinds of illnesses. I was not reassured by what I found out about Borden Chemical and its history of environmental abuses, but I can’t assume the same about the residents of Illiopolis.
Why did the thousand people in this town welcome Borden Chemical, working there, sending their children to work there? Because they need to eat. And because they can’t do anything about it, and around here, people don’t worry about what they can’t fix. What are they going to do, drive to Decatur to work at Archer Daniels Midland, where four employees died in an assortment of industrial accidents? Or to A.E. Staley, with its 12-hour shifts? At least it’s a job.
When I visited the family over Easter, Uncle Wade talked about men who worked in a Taylorville
factory. Each had died or was dying from a rare cancer. They’d been forced to climb into tanks to clean out mystery chemical crap. Anyone who said no was fired. "They swelled up big as blimps before they kicked off," Wade said. "Pathetic bastards."
Since he owned his own construction business, my uncle never had to worry about being in any employer’s pocket. They took on other blue-collar risks: My uncle can barely move from motion injuries. But they chose the work, and that makes all the difference. My cousin Mike, who took over the business from his father, says if you don’t become "a boss" by 40, you"ll turn into a cripple. "Your joints stop working," he said. He told stories of danger and carelessness: men with hands stapled to walls, men with nails driven into legs. Which tools cause arthritis in the long run. "You got to know what you’re doing." But, he said, it’s better than being a factory cog.
We had thought our choices made us safe. We lived in the country by the river, away from the city and its violence. We never traveled, never took a plane or train or bus, never drove farther than "town." My family never went to college, where they might meet scary people. But for all that, my mother spent the Christmas of 2000 stuck in a chair because of the swelling in her legs. The tumor caused the swelling, she claimed. It was only later, by stealing a look into her medical chart that I found out her new diagnosis: lymphoma.
"So, did you ever find out anything about that fish kill?" I asked Mom, as we nibbled Teresa’s peanut butter fudge and watched through the windows at the kids sledding down the long, steep riverbank. Mom didn’t look sick—more lined, puffier, but normal enough. I bet then that she might have a few years left. She never mentioned time, never talked about her illness, and if pressed, she lied. I considered calling her doctor for the truth, but what would be the point? We knew it was beyond surgery, and that chemo wasn’t going to do it. Mom was still convinced that the treatments would work, though, and blamed everything on her doctor. "She’s given up on me," was her line. "She thinks I should go into a hospice. She wants to shove me into a corner so she doesn’t have to deal with me." Chemo splints and radiation blasts were getting it, Mom insisted, even though the doctor said otherwise. Though Mom grew more bloated and forgetful, though she rarely ate. It was easy to take her word for it, as if what I saw was just a delusion, and the will truly was greater than the body. Families can convince themselves that what we choose to believe is what is true.
"Borden might’ve done it," I said. "But other factories were doing the same thing."
"It was Borden," she insisted. "That’s what your grandpa said."
"How did he know?"
"It was in the paper." But I looked for proof in the newspapers, and never found it. There had been other fish kills that year. The signs pointed more to the Decatur Sanitary District than Borden. "It could have been anyone," I told her.
"Everyone knows it was Borden. You’d think they would’ve had more respect for the fish."
"What about respect for the people?"
"Well, nobody ate the fish after that. Nobody died," she said, lighting up a cigarette.
BECKY BRADWAY, author of the essay collection Pink Houses and Family Taverns (Indiana University Press), teaches creative writing at Millikin University in Decatur, IL. Photos KARL STOLLEY.