Air Date: Week of January 21, 2005
Ever wonder what makes tires black? It's fine pieces of black carbon. But producer Vicki Monks reports that Oklahomans who live near a plant that manufactures the product say they've been left unprotected and it may be time to give an Indian reservation control over environmental regulation.
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.
Under a new Environmental Protection Agency standard more than one-third of Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of soot or small particles in the air they breath. Scientists only recently have begun to understand the dangers of these microscopic particles. They are easily inhaled and can contribute to a host of diseases.
In Oklahoma, near the border of Ponca Indian land, community members say one industrial plant has dumped so much carbon soot into the air their farm animals are changing color. Ponca tribal leaders accuse state and federal officials of ignoring the problem. It's one reason the Poncas and a dozen other Oklahoma tribes have decided that maybe it's time they had more authority over their air and water. Vicki Monks has the story.
[GATE CLANKING, BUCKET SCRAPING, SHEEP BLEETING]
MONKS: On a small acreage just south of Ponca City, Oklahoma, John Hough runs a herd of white-faced sheep, a breed prized for pure white wool. Problem is, these sheep appear closer to black - an oily, sooty black.
HOUGH: That one right there in the middle, look at her nose, around her nose nostrils, look how black it is. And up past her eyes, see them streaks up past her eyes? That all should be white. It's a pathetic thing to see some kind of an animal like that.
John Hough's white sheep changed color from the
MONKS: Mr. Hough blames the condition of his sheep on smokestacks at a factory just up the road. It produces what's called carbon black. The plant super-heats waste oil from a nearby refinery to produce ultra-fine carbon particles. They're used primarily to strengthen the rubber in tires; it's the ingredient that makes tires black.
[SHEEP SOUNDS FADING]
MONKS: A stubborn black film covers just about everything on the Hough property - from the tractor to the trees. A short walk across the grass, and I notice that my shoes and pants have collected black dust halfway up to my knees.
HOUGH: We are inhaling it. Everything around us is inhaling it because it's a real fine powdery dust and we're breathing it just as much as them sheep are.
MONKS: Carbon black itself might not seem to be harmful - it's pure carbon, the basic building block of nature - but frequently, other toxic chemicals are attached. The particles can contribute to heart disease, chronic bronchitis and asthma. California last year listed carbon black as a cancer-causing agent.
UCLA Toxicology Professor John Froines is chairman of California's Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants.
According to Professor Froines, it's generally accepted that particles may inflame the lungs, leading to mutations that can develop into cancer. And, new research is finding that ultra-fine particles may damage other parts of the body.
FROINES: It's not just the issue of penetration deeply into the lung. You get them in your nose, as well, and they end up in your brain, and so you have a potential for inflammatory effects in the brain, central nervous system and you have a potential for carcinogenesis, as well.
MONKS: Professor Froines explains that carbon particles lodged inside the body can actually produce other toxic compounds--in a sense, becoming engines that continuously manufacture substances with the potential to cause cancer.
FROINES: So the particles themselves can produce more damage to DNA than you might anticipate.
[LOUD FACTORY WHINE IN BACKGROUND]
Continental Carbon plant near Ponca City, Oklahoma.
MONKS: Continental Carbon's original owner, Continental Oil, Conoco, built this carbon black plant in 1953 on former Ponca Indian reservation land. Back then, Thurman and Thelma Buffalohead lived next door. Thelma says the top man at Continental Carbon assured the family that the company would build a state of the art plant that would never pollute.
THELMA: I said, “Will it get everything black?” “No, no, no, it'll be all right,” he said.
THURMAN: I hate to say it, but that's a lie, telling people that and then it's dirty. I tell you it's dirty, still that way.
MONKS: Thurman Buffalohead has a Ponca word for that.
THURMAN: Eeooshishta - that's what liar means, lying means. Eeooshista and eegah moneeteday. Even that north side of carbon black, there was a stream of clear water. We used to go down there and sit in that creek. But after that you couldn't do that, you'd get yourself black, you know, touching everything down that creek.
MONKS: The Buffaloheads say the land around the creek turned black soon after the plant was up and running, and it wasn't long before the carbon black had gotten into everything.
THELMA: I had some chickens that were white and before I knew it they were black chickens. And you'd wake up with our nose, just all black soot in the nose.
THURMAN: Oh, sister, it's just that smell! It goes into your nostril and I mean you sleep with it, yeah. That's all I could tell you. It gets on your clothes and makes everything black. Eeooshista cha ah, ehdah a gah a la bashi. But they don't care, they still going to lie and lie and lie and lie and that's why we're in trouble, yeah, we're in trouble today.
MONKS: The Buffalohead family lived on part of an Indian allotment that once belonged to Harriet Rush in The Battle. The land had stayed in the family since 1895. But by the 1960s, Mrs. Rush in The Battle's descendants wanted to get away from the plant. They tried to sell the property, but no one wanted it. It was already too contaminated, and documents show the government was aware of the problem.
Richard Ray Whitman reads from a 1969 memo written by the local Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent:
WHITMAN: “Regarding Ponca allotment 435, Harriet Rush in the Battle. The subject allotment has been offered for public sale on several occasions without success because of heavy contamination from the carbon plant operated by Continental Oil. The owners have demanded some action be taken by the Bureau, therefore, it is requested that an investigation be conducted. James D. Hale, Superintendent”
MONKS: Four years after this memo was written, the BIA signed off on the sale of this contaminated land to the Ponca Tribal Housing Authority for the purpose of building low-income Indian homes. Because the Rush in the Battle property was classified as restricted Indian land, the sale could not have taken place without BIA approval. According to BIA Spokeswoman Nedra Darling, no one currently at the agency remembers the case. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development constructed 11 homes on the property - directly downwind of the plant.
[WHINE OF PLANT, APPROACHING TRAIN]
SIMPSON: They don't care about us Indians out here. And they knew that this land was contaminated but they put us here anyway just to sell the land, and that was wrong.
MONKS: Scotty Simpson lives in one of the Ponca homes. He discovered the BIA memo when he went digging through old government records to find out how he and his family ended up in this mess.
SIMPSON: I got two little granddaughters, and sometimes they come in and look like they rolled in charcoal it's so bad. Is this harming our health? Nobody knows. Or nobody cares.
MONKS: Thurman and Thelma Buffalohead say they still haven't escaped the effects of the plant, even though they now live more than a mile from Continental Carbon.
THELMA: And I smell the fumes early in the morning, about four or five o'clock they turn it loose. I smell it a lot of times and it just makes me sick and I told my husband, [SPEAKING PONCA] “Ongooli di blati dee wheena.” (LAUGHS)
THURMAN: She said whatever we smell it stinks, she said.