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The Voice In the Canyon: The Spraying of Kellner Canyon

(This story was first published in ToxCat Vol 2 #9, published in the UK by Ralph Ryder and friends. For more information on ToxCat, see the banner at the end of the article)

Bob McCray is a big man. Standing 6ft 4 inches tall he is every Englishman’s idea of what an American ‘cowboy’ should be. Yet Bob McCray’s true statue comes not from his enormous build and height, but from his indomitable fighting spirit and his dedicated to the forgotten spray victims of Globe, Arizona.

I first met Bob McCray during the 2nd Citizens ‘Conference on Dioxin in St. Louis, Missouri in July 1994. As with all anti-toxics - incineration activists, we found we had a lot in common and a good friendship was established during the conference. We shared a room during the 3rd Citizens’ Conference on Dioxin and other Synthetic Hormone Disruptors in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in March 1996. It was there he told me the full story of the chemical spraying of Kellner Canyon that led to his involvement in the battle against toxins and apathetic officialdum. In August 1969, Bob, a fit young man, was just one of a number of men building homes for themselves and their families in the Globe area. His wife, Rosalie, and their five month old son Paul, made up a small, but very happy McCray family. The plot they had chosen for their home was inside the timberlands of Kellner Canyon, one of 4 canyons, Russell, Kellner, Icehouse and Six-shooter, that lie about three miles south of Globe, Arizona.

The house at that time was just a skeleton with a tarpaulin sheet stretched across the rafters as a makeshift roof to shield them from the hot August sun. Settling down to a family picnic, Bob heard the throbbing rhythm of helicopter blades. Peering into the clear blue sky he saw a snub-nosed - two seater U.S. Forest Service helicopter passing overhead just above the tree tops. Seconds later a ghostly, foul smelling spray cloud enveloped them as it drifted like a thick shiffon curtain along the floor of the canyon, over the partly built house and into the McCray’s lungs, and into their lives. Suddenly, from a happy family enjoying the sunshine and its warmth, the McCray’s found themselves sopping wet with some strange witches brew burning their eyes and skin. Absolutely furious, Bob McCray bundled his frightened family into their pickup and drove to the U.S. Forest Services helicopter pad near-by to find out who was responsible and get some answers as to what was going on.

When they arrived at the heli-pad the McCray’s encountered a line of interested spectators watching the helicopter filling up with more chemical spray. Bursting through the line of onlookers and shouting defiance at the pilot Bob McCray made for the helicopter. Seeing him approach, the pilot simply revved up, lifted off, and flew over dowsing him with the foul smelling vapour again.

Also enjoying the August sun on that fateful day in Kellner Canyon was Bob McKusick and his family. They were looking at the clay deposits McKusick, in his trade as a potter, had secured through negotiations with the Forest Service. Then came the throbbing blades and the pungent curtain of mist...

Pat Medlin, a young women living in Kellner Canyon was also keen to take advantage of the beautiful sunshine. She was stretched out soaking up the sun in her garden when, seeing the good looking young women in a bikini, the pilot of the helicopter flew closer for a better look, not bothering to stop the chemical spray as he swooped in low over her home...

Another resident, Billie Shoecraft, had been woken up earlier in the day by the same throb of helicopter blades. Stepping onto her front porch she was met by a curtain of mist that lingered in the early morning air...

The canyon residents later discovered that the pungent, curtain of mist was in fact a cloud of Silvex, the brand name of Dow Chemical’s mixture of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. American servicemen in Vietnam knew it better as Agent Orange.

Virtually everyone who was caught directly by the spray developed health problems of one kind or another. Pat Medlin lost mobility within a few days and never walked again without the aid of a walking frame. She died of cancer a couple of years ago.

Paul McCray, Bob’s son, developed convulsions and has had a terrifying 36 attacks in one day.

Billie Shoecraft developed cancer and until her death in 1976 led a fierce battle to get the process of chemical spraying stopped. The government and industry experts tried to play-down the whole thing and pacify the residents of Globe. Shoecraft’s feelings and outrage at what had been done is reflected in the title of the book she wrote about the shameful affair: “Sue the Bastards.”

The members of several other families in the area that were caught directly in the spray developed cancer as the years passed, as did Bob McCray.

Of all the people affected, Shoecraft, McKusick and McCray wasted no time in seeking legal advice. They spoke to anyone and everyone who would listen to them. It wasn’t long before lawsuits were being filed on their behalf against Dow Chemical.

In 1980, the Globe residents class-action lawsuit against Dow Chemical was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Dow had the court documents sealed. By then the chemical agents used in Silvex had been banned. Surprisingly, in the land of the big pay-outs, the compensation the residents received barely covered their medical bills.

The story of Kellner Canyon didn’t end there. Like the Phoenix it has risen again from the ashes. The insidious effects and persistence of the chemicals used, and their by-product - dioxin - has surfaced with a vengeance on the unsuspecting community.

At the time of spraying little was known by the general public about the dangers from the chemicals used in the sprays. It was assumed that the only danger to health came from “between the nozzle and the ground.” Nowadays of course things are vastly different. Through the efforts of a few responsible scientists, community based groups like the Citizen Clearing House on Hazardous Waste (CCHW), and people like activist/author Carol Van Strum, the public is a lot better informed about many of the chemicals used as pesticides. Many of which are now known to be persistent and health damaging years after being released into the environment.

Bob McCray is now a 60 years old disabled motor mechanic, specialising in customised and vintage American cars (when his health allows). During the years after the spraying, as well as suffering continual, declining health, he always had this niggling feeling that things weren’t quite all they seemed with regards to what the authorities were saying about the chemicals used. He began reading extensively on the research into the toxicity and persistence of the chemicals used widely in the United States as herbicides and pesticides. He also kept a watchful eye on the situation in the Kellner Canyon/Globe area with regards to people’s health which he noted seemed to be following a downward curve.

In September 1993, knowing a great deal more about the advances on the dangers of herbicides, pesticides and their by-products, Bob McCray, after hearing a lot of rumours about increasing ill-health around Globe, decided to advertise on the local radio and in the local newspapers to see if they were any elevated levels of cancers. “I expected to get a few replies, but I got an avalanche,” he told me. “I got six hundred letters in the first month, they were coming in so fast there was no way I could keep up with them.”

Compiling the volumes of information he received, McCray began to note a definite connection between specific types of cancers: 30 cases of Soft Tissue Sarcoma - a cancer affecting tendons and ligaments (suffered predominately by forestry workers using pesticides): 40 cases of Hodgkin’s Disease and 40 cases of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma - a cancer of the lymph nodes. “All these odd-ball cancers are to found in people living around the canyons that were sprayed,” McCray said.

It is worth noting that according to the National Institute of Health, the Globe-Miami area should experience one case of Soft Tissue Sarcoma every two years; one case of Hodgkin’s disease and 3 cases of Non-Hodgkin’s disease every year. The only other group in the United States afflicted with high rates of these cancers are the Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange.

Bob McCray has unearthed so many cases of cancer that even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Arizona State Health Department have become interested. Dr. Linda Birnbaum, (Environmental Toxicology Division U.S.EPA) said: “I talked to McCray and I think his numbers are very interesting, I think we need to do more research on it. What I would like to see done is a case-control study to see of there is indeed an increase in cancer incidents and (Agent Orange) exposure.” The Arizona State Health Department believes it is the best department to do the study. Dr. Tim Flood, Chief epidemiologist of Arizona States Cancer Registry said he “...would like to get hold of McCray figures. Most of the clusters we get are in the cities. They usually involve common cancers, but this soft-tissue sarcoma is relatively rare and it’s easier to trace to a cause.” Dr. Flood was quick to point out that state research did not support McCray’s numbers, but admitted the state registry was woefully lacking in rural areas and only extended back to 1991. “I plan on meeting with McCray because he has better numbers than we do,” he said.

Bob McCray however, is in no hurry to part with the statistic’s he has complied. “They want to take control of this study and then they can simply say there isn’t a problem.” he said. “When I’ve finished the registry, then I’ll turn it over to them and not before.”

The distrust McCray has in officialdom is well founded and he spoke of the low regard he has for epidemiologists’ as disease detectives. “If a plane crashed on you and you died, any normal person would say the plane killed you, an epidemiologist would look at you and ask; ‘Well, did he smoke?’ ”

Bob’s research and questions have created a strong feeling of resentment towards him and his family in the Globe area. Many people believe his digging and unearthing of frightening facts and figures of unusually high rates of abnormal diseases is affecting development in the area. He has been the victim of numerous personal attacks, both verbal and physical over the years. This led to his wife Rosalie writing an open letter to the community and its leaders in February 1996; “...We have been trying to have this problem addressed by those whose voices could initiate a resolution to the problem. They have instead decided to blame the messenger for crying the news. We have been threatened, intimidated, ridiculed, shunned, and asked to leave town. We have had our credibility questioned and have sustained numerous personal attacks. If we left town today, the community problem would not be solved. We won’t leave town and we won’t shut up. It is interesting to note that this discord and the attacks on us come mainly from civic leaders, professionals, news media and government officials, not from the masses of people who daily read what we write and talk with us. Civic leaders for years have been patting each other on the back and praising each other for community service. That’s fair. We too commend those who have the time and energy to promote the community. We ask those same people to promote the life of the community, not just the economy and economic growth of the community... She continued: “Tourism and retirement to the Globe-Miami area is great,but a vital part of the groundwork has been over-looked. We see this current effort as inviting hundreds of people to a dinner dance, to be held in the building where visitors had a livestock show. The building is not cleaned up because no-one feels responsible for the mess. We invite guests anyway. All the gingerbread and crepe paper in the world does not make up for the mess left behind by someone else...”

Bob McCray endorsed everything Rosalie had written: “They are trying to attract new people to the area to live. But what kind of people are they to want people to retire here and encourage young people to settle and have children here knowing the problems we have. Local people are being sold down the drain. They are told dioxins do not cause problems. These people then come to me and say give us the facts Bob, tell us the truth.” I tell them that the person who told them dioxin is OK is a liar and a scam artist. Usually I’m told the name of the stupid individual who is selling us down the drain. You would be surprised at who these fools are, some are our top officials.”

As well as encouraging people to settle in the area officials of Globe are selling the town as a attractive tourist spot. As one journalist wrote: “...the Brigadoon of Arizona, caught in a time-warp where the women’s movement is still a decade away and the economy is still of the thermos-and-lunch-box variety,”...it is a scenic rest stop on the road at the intersection of Tucson’s North Oracle Road and Phoenix’s Superstition Highway.”

Bob McCray’s rumblings about all the cancers has undermined both Globes stability and attraction. Fuelling local scepticism and anger against McCray has been a government and industrial propaganda blitz. The campaign to pacify and re-assure the public during the 1970s has long since collapsed under the scrutiny of further research, but in the meantime it was McCray who bore the brunt of Globe’s official’s denials and the interested parties resentment (i.e. business folk, tourist trade, industrial, housing development etc.) “I’ve been beaten up, threatened with my life, lied to, barred from public meetings... Everything I predicted is coming true. We, the people, have been lied to time and time again.”

During his years of research Bob McCray has spoken to dozens of doctors and officials. “I have had to lie a lot to get information,” he said. “Doctors won’t tell you anything unless they think your a doctor too. They have a God-like complex and can’t believe an auto-mechanic can understand what they’re saying.” Now he says, doctors call him for advice.

A story published in The Arizona Silver Belt (1994) in Globe, saw the towns one-time avarice turned into assistance. A lot more people came forward with stories about cancers in their families and no-one was calling him “Crazy McCray.” “I received one negative response and maybe one hundred positive’s,” he said. “I thought at last, people are beginning to get it.”

Since 1973, the residents of Kellner Canyon, worried about the quality of their well water, have hauled their water from Globe’s city spigot three miles away. Bob McKusick, who lives on property either side of Kellner Creek and keeps a number of goats believes; “The chemicals are locked inside the clay underground, but when it rains they are released.” He believes his goats are like miners canaries and after a period of very heavy rain one kid was born with reproductive organs backwards, (see photo) two more were born without anal openings, a fourth was born with a cleft palate and grew very little.

Bob McCrays battle and research continues: “I’ve been getting phones calls and letters from around the country with more people and groups than ever telling me about the government lies and cover-up on pesticides,” he said.

Shortly after the 1969 spraying in Globe, the Forest Service engaged in illegal dumping. It took the unused defoliant barrels left over from the helipad and buried them in a mine shaft 120 miles to the north near Alpine, Arizona. The barrels were discovered when a worker who took part in the exercise came forward in 1989. No criminal charges have ever been filed.

In 1990, EPA were asked by Congressman Kyl to test the Kellner and Ice House Canyons for residual Silvex and dioxin. Eighteen months later his office was told that no survey was needed because the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality had thoroughly studied the area and deemed it ‘decontaminated.’ However, it was reported to one official that the state had never tested Kellner Canyon, when in fact in 1986 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had tested it as part of the National Dioxin Study. They found the highest dioxin concentration anywhere in America on the helipad site above Globe. Warning signs placed on the helipad were removed shortly after McCray and McKusick visted the sight and took photographs of the site, and the signs, in February 1989.

Although the residents of Kellner Canyon and others received very little in terms of compensation from Dow. Their battle served as a precedent for a Vietnam veterans’ class-action suit worth $180 million against chemical companies like Dow and Hercules. Again, the Corporations settled out of court without admitting liability. Until now they have been able to extract themselves with their bank balance hardly dented from Globe. If a link between the numbers of cancers today and industry were to be established their liability would be enormous. “Oh, they have killed me” said Bob McCray, “as surely as if they had given me a lethal injection or put a gun to my head. They can’t do anything to me anymore.”

Footnote: While the U.S. government is obligated to compensate veterans who were exposed to herbicides (although God knows they tried to get out of it for long enough) an American citizens whose health is damaged in his own back yard by the same chemical is not entitled to a cent.

After many years of pressure, intimindation and in very real fear of physical harm, Rosalie McCray has now left the area. Bob McCray continues his battle for justice alone.

Source: Personal interviews, letters and telephone conversations with Bob McCray. The Tucson Weekly March 2-8 1994.

© R Ryder TC Publishing, nonprofit grass roots media help yourselves.

To read more of the forgotton toxic towns of the United States like Globe see “Toxic Nation” Fred Setterberg, Lonny Shavelson. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., ISBN 0-471-57545-3

************************************************************************* Communities Against Toxics Tel 0151 339 5473 PO Box 29 Tel/Fax 0151 201 6780 Ellesmere Port Email ralph@tcpub.demon.co.uk South Wirral L66 3TX. United Kingdom

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