The Pirates of Illiopolis

Photograph by Jason Houston, used with permission

A FEW WEEKS AFTER 9/11, I gave a lecture on environmental pediatrics at the New York Academy of Medicine. The talk had been planned months earlier, but it wasn’t at all clear, in the days leading up to it, whether the event would take place. My host said, frankly, he could not guarantee an audience. I had misgivings of my own. The drive to Manhattan from my office at Cornell took five hours even before the George Washington Bridge was outfitted with security checkpoints, and I had a newborn who would be riding with me across that bridge.

In the end, we decided, as so many people did in those first dazed weeks, that since all possible actions felt wrong anyway, we should just get on with it. And so my husband paced marble corridors with our son on his shoulder while I addressed a half-filled auditorium. In the audience were a number of pregnant women and, as I was getting ready to leave, they approached me as a group. They wanted to know about that most toxic of all synthetic chemicals, dioxin, which, at vanishingly small concentrations, can cause developmental problems as well as cancer. Had the incineration and collapse of the World Trade Center sent a dioxin-filled plume over Manhattan? They had heard that the towers were filled with PVC plastic and that PVC makes dioxin when burned. Is that right? Were their babies in danger?

I tried to keep my voice calm. Yes, I said, PVC — or polyvinyl chloride, or vinyl — makes dioxin when it burns and yes, the Trade Center was surely full of PVC. It’s used in electrical cables, flooring, wallpaper, and office furniture. I said I didn’t know what health threats the smoke created for the people breathing it — or for the fetuses they might be carrying. Colleagues of mine at Mount Sinai Medical Center were, right now, researching those very questions. Unfortunately, the answers would be years away. Science takes time, especially when actual exposures are unknown and the outcomes, like subtle developmental deficits, can take years to manifest.

The pregnant women watched Elijah nurse. I looked down at their various-sized bellies. We all fell into silence.

The next morning, I left my sleeping son and spouse in the hotel and took a nearly empty subway downtown. The trains under lower Manhattan were not running, so at some point I got out and started walking. There were no towers to navigate by, a fact that seemed as surprising as it was obvious. I figured I was getting closer when the faces of the missing began appearing on every wall and pole. And then I rounded a corner near a closed-up barbershop, and there it was.

I felt as if I were looking at the ruins of some ancient civilization. There was the broken pillar. There was the curl of smoke before the crumbled facade. There was the scrap of cloth fluttering from the blasted window. There was the rubble. There was the gaping hole.

After a while, I noticed that my blouse was damp with milk. Somewhere uptown a baby was getting hungry. Fumbling with the buttons to my jacket, I dropped my book bag onto a sewer grate. Just then, in a surreal transaction, a cab appeared, a sobbing woman got out, and I got in.

Back in Ithaca later that evening, I saw that my green book bag had turned gray with Ground Zero ashes. Lying on my kitchen floor, it was still holding my breast pump and a couple of diapers, along with my lecture notes. I lifted the bag gingerly and carried it out to the porch. I’d deal with it tomorrow. For now, I focused on the floor. Around and around I went with the broom, until there was not a speck of dust or ash anywhere. The floor’s vinyl beige squares and bland blue flowers seemed innocent and reassuring.

AT 10:40 P.M. ON APRIL 23, 2004m, Formosa Plastics’ PVC plant in Illiopolis, Illinois, blew up. A photograph of the explosion appeared in The Ithaca Journal. It was the first time in my memory that photographs from that part of the world appeared in the local paper here. Indeed, the disaster made headlines all around the globe, and it was spectacular by all accounts. The blast killed four workers outright — a fifth would die twenty days later — and sent into the night sky a hundred-foot fireball. This ball, once it faded from view, left behind a dark, hovering mass that drifted slowly over the landscape like some kind of evil UFO. Four towns were evacuated, several highways closed, a no-fly zone declared, and three hundred firefighters from twenty-seven surrounding communities battled the flames for three days. Their efforts were complicated by the power outage — triggered by the shock wave — that disabled the water supply. Formosa Plastics ran the wells that provided the town’s water.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board was summoned to determine the cause of the explosion. Its chairwoman, Carolyn Merritt, estimated that it would take a year to figure out why the plant blew up. Terrorism was ruled out. But beyond that, only two facts were known for sure. One: A large amount of vinyl chloride, the vaporous feedstock of polyvinyl chloride, had been released into the air immediately before the whole facility blew skyward. Two: The explosion originated in the reactors where vinyl chloride and vinyl acetate were being mixed together.

Meanwhile, a consortium of agencies began investigating the long-term health and environmental consequences of the explosion and the plume that wafted over the landscape in the days that followed. This investigation will take far longer than a year. Science is slow.

But politics, like fetal development, is not. Within a fortnight of the accident, Formosa Plastics vowed to rebuild, and Republican lawmakers pledged to help them find the money to do so. A business group in Springfield made plans to include the PVC plant in a special “enterprise zone” that would relieve the company from paying sales tax on building materials. These deals were being brokered before investigators could safely get within a quarter mile of the plant; its charred remains were structurally unstable and coated with “pyrolytic breakdown products” — otherwise known as soot — that, given the chemicals known to have detonated, very likely contained dioxin.

By early May, Illiopolis had vanished from the newspapers. I talked to a pediatrician friend who practices in the area to see what she knew. Gail had been vacationing when the explosion happened. “I read about it in the newspapers in Maui,” she said. “And now I get back home, and it’s like it never happened.”

I WENT TO ILLIOPOLIS IN JUNE. I drove a rental car from my mother’s house down what is now called I-155 and then took a series of blacktops through thigh-high corn until I crossed the railroad track. I pulled off onto a gravel service road, got out of the car, and there it was. Twisted sheets of metal. Knotted piles of pipe. A blackened hull. A gaping hole.

The storage silos were still standing. The hopper cars were still on their tracks. A field of corn hissed in the wind. I checked to see which way its leaves were blowing to make sure I was upwind from what I was looking at.

The last worker to die from injuries sustained during the explosion was Randy Hancock, age fifty. Randy had clung to life in the Springfield Memorial burn unit for nearly three weeks until he heard the news that his wife, Linda, also a worker at the plant, was already dead. According to family members, he had, in his last days, repeatedly used his right hand to gesture toward his left, pointing to the place where a wedding ring would be. From this, they inferred he wanted news of Linda. When finally told that she was gone, Randy slipped into a coma, and then he was gone too.

One of the big debates raging within architecture and design circles these days is whether PVC is an inherently dangerous material. At face value, the very question seems queer. Some of the most banal household objects are made of vinyl. Garden hoses. Shower curtains. Bath toys. Sewer pipe. Carpet. Siding. And the credit cards with which to buy them all. But for all its apparent inertness, PVC has a number of menacing qualities, most of which can be attributed to the fact that it is one of the few common plastics to contain chlorine. PVC is 56 percent chlorine by weight, and it is this ingredient that makes vinyl an environmental wild card.

The risks begin with the first step of manufacturing. Chlorine gas, PVC’s progenitor, is a wicked poison that turns into hydrochloric acid upon contact with moisture. It kills by burning the airways of those who inhale it. Victims suffocate in their own body fluids; those who survive are often incapacitated for life. This is why, after World War I, chlorine gas was outlawed by international agreement as a chemical weapon. But it’s still prevalent in manufacturing, and accidents do happen. In January 2005, a ruptured chlorine tanker car in Graniteville, South Carolina, killed 9 people, hospitalized 500, and turned 5,400 residents into evacuees. That accident was eerily similar to one that occurred six months earlier near San Antonio, Texas, where a chlorine tanker car derailment killed 3 and sickened 49.

Once chlorine is combined with ethylene, the dangers multiply. The oily liquid so created, ethylene dichloride, is a probable human carcinogen that, when spilled, has a nasty habit of heading straight for groundwater. According to the National Toxicology Program, at least four Americans out of every hundred drink water containing traces of ethylene dichloride. Vinyl chloride — the next step along the manufacturing chain — is a potent carcinogen linked to liver, blood, and brain cancers. It possesses the additional quality of being explosively flammable. Vinyl acetate, another carcinogen, is also explosive. (Workers in the Illiopolis plant wore special nail-less shoes to avoid striking sparks on the concrete floors.) And, at several points along the way, vinyl production generates dioxina chlorinated pollutant that travels the globe on the jet stream, lasts for up to thirty-five years in human tissues, and reaches its highest concentrations in breast milk.

Nor do the hazards end once the toxic feedstocks of PVC eventually find their way into home furnishings. Fumes emitted from vinyl materials can degrade indoor air quality and contribute to respiratory distress among inhabitants. A new vinyl shower curtain, for example, can raise indoor air toxicity for longer than a month. A 2003 Finnish study that investigated complaints of adult-onset asthma among employees working in an office building revealed rates of asthma there to be nine times higher than expected. Researchers discovered that degraded vinyl floor covering had released volatile chemicals into indoor air. When the offending floor was removed, air quality improved, as did the respiratory health of the workers. Similarly, a large study in Sweden found that the combination of moisture and PVC flooring worsened asthmatic symptoms among children.

And vinyl is, for all intents and purposes, unrecyclable. PVC dies one of three deaths, all of which have environmental consequences. It can be buried in a landfill where the various plasticizers used to make it flexible leach out and threaten air and groundwater. It can be shoveled into a trash incinerator, which destroys the plasticizers but creates dioxin and heavy metal-laden ash. Or it can burn up in an uncontrolled fire resulting from accidents, arson, or acts of terrorism. When a building burns, not only do the chlorine and carbon atoms in PVC rearrange themselves to form dioxin, but hydrochloric acid is also generated, along with black, choking smoke.

Add to all this the fact that PVC plants are leaky places. Take a look at the Toxics Release Inventory, the self-reported list of chemical emissions that manufacturers submit each year to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If there is a PVC facility in your home state there are twenty-one of them currently operating within nine statesit will appear among the state’s biggest polluters. Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Incorporated, “The Prince of PVC,” has a laundry list of serious environmental violations in Cambodia, Texas, Louisiana, and Delaware.

Formosa’s Illiopolis plant ranked within the top ninetieth percentile in the nation for air releases of carcinogens in 2001. This distinction was entirely attributable to the 41,000 pounds of vinyl chloride that it released that year. On top of this, Formosa released 40,000 pounds of vinyl acetate. In 2002, Formosa’s vinyl chloride emissions fell to 31,000 pounds, while its vinyl acetate emissions rose to 45,000 pounds.

On the Illinois prairie, the prevailing winds blow from west to east. Two miles east of the PVC plant sits the village of Illiopolis, where tiny bungalows share residential streets with formerly grand Victorians. On Matilda Street, at the very west edge of town, Illiopolis High School — “Home of the Pirates” — sprawls next to the middle school, the elementary school, and the prekindergarten. All that stands between the Pirates’ playing fields and Formosa’s daily two hundred pounds of known and suspected carcinogens is corn.

Two chemists have devoted their careers to understanding the community health threats created when chemicals from PVC plants drift to the far side of the fence line. One of them is Wilma Subra, who has studied air quality in the neighborhoods surrounding various PVC plants in Kentucky and Louisiana. Even in the absence of explosions and upsets — during times when the plants were operating normally — Subra has documented consistent patterns of dioxin and vinyl chloride exposure to area residents, including schoolchildren.

In February 2004, Subra, who won a MacArthur Award for her research, presented her data at the first public meeting of the U.S. Green Building Council’s vinyl task force in Washington, D.C. She was warmly received, and the council’s members asked thoughtful questions. After Subra’s presentation, however, more than twenty different vinyl lobbyists spoke on the virtues of PVC. A year later, when the task force released the first public draft of its PVC assessment, Subra’s work was largely ignored.

The other chemist is Pat Costner, a former industry scientist who now works for Greenpeace. Costner focuses on dioxin formation when PVC burns. When I asked her to help me understand how much dioxin might be formed from the feedstocks of PVC under the conditions of an explosive fire, she said that it was hard to know. It all depended on the kinds of chemicals stored at the plant and the weather conditions during the three days the fire raged. To wit, I needed to find out how much resin was stored on-site.

Beverley Scobell looks like Betty Ford, only prettier. She has lived in Illiopolis for forty years, and her house is just behind the spire of the Catholic church — that’s how she told me how to find it — and next to the post office. She and her husband, Hank, served as volunteer firefighters for more than two decades, although they were no longer active members the night Formosa blew up. Hank and Bev had gone to bed early the night of the accident. Hank was asleep and Bev was watching Leno when the power went out. Seconds later she heard the boom.

Hank went right to the firehouse. Bev went to the home of a disabled elderly neighbor, Connie, and helped her get dressed by flashlight, presuming that an evacuation order was imminent. In fact, there was already such an order, but few residents of Illiopolis knew about it. Because of the blackout, the emergency siren failed to go off.

When Hank came back from the firehouse, he reported that the wind, miraculously, was blowing to the south-southwest — away from the town. Nevertheless, and against a current of evacuees driving east, Hank, Bev, and Connie all got in the car and headed west, toward the cloud. The plan was to deliver Connie to her nephew’s house in Mechanicsburg, but by the time they got there, that community was also under evacuation. So they doubled back. In the end, Connie spent the night in a sealed room at a firehouse in a nearby village. Bev and Hank went on to Springfield.

“We never believed or bothered to know what went on out there,” said Bev of Formosa Plastics. “It was just a fact of life. We’ve lived with it for so long.”

Around the corner from Bev lives Rayeanna Stacey, Illiopolis’s coordinator for emergency services. A certified emergency medical technician, she drives the van that runs with the fire trucks. She is also the village clerk and the school bus driver. Her husband, Dennis, is the superintendent of public works and first captain at the fire department.

Rayeanna was testy about the issue of the siren never going off. She had been complaining for years to Formosa about the need for an emergency siren that worked during a power outage. For that matter, Rayeanna added, she had also objected repeatedly — and to no avail — to the many vinyl chloride tanker cars that sometimes spent the night parked on the tracks right in the center of town. All it would take is a couple of teenage pranksters and nobody in Illiopolis would wake up in the morning.

The night Formosa blew up, Rayeanna went to Christine’s Diner, which had been turned into a command center for emergency responders. Before the weekend was over, she would transport four dead bodies in her van.

Rayeanna emphasized what a miracle it was that the initial blast did not set off a chain reaction of even larger explosions. Because some of the first responders on the scene were employees of the plant, they were familiar with the layout and could direct others to critical locations. In her professional opinion, if all the chemicals in and around the plant had detonated, there would be nothing living within a five-mile radius.

Rayeanna said, “We never trained for something like this.” And then she cried.

On June 16, the Illinois EPA hosted a public availability session to be held in the high school cafeteria. When I pulled into the high school parking lot for the availability session, it was filled with over coifed reporters standing in front of television cameras. Once inside, I realized why the interviews were taking place outside. Without air conditioning, the cafeteria was besieged with swarms of gnats. Nevertheless, I thought the press was missing a great photo opportunity. Formosa’s table was located adjacent to the “Home of the Pirates” banner that displayed the school’s mascot: a one-eyed pirate in skull-and-crossbones regalia.

I approached the Formosa table first. It was staffed by Roe Vadas, the local plant manager, Peter Gray, an environmental engineer, and Rob Thibault, the manager of corporate communications. I wanted to know what chemicals were on-site when the explosion happened. I asked the question a variety of ways — What about those storage silos? Are they full or empty right now? — and received different versions of the same response. That’s business information. We’re not going to go into that. That’s proprietary. Some are full. And some are empty. When I asked if anyone in Illiopolis knows what kind of chemicals are stored and used at Formosa — like, say, Rayeanna Stacey, emergency response coordinator — the answers got even murkier. I was told there was something called a “risk management plan” that had been written and submitted by Formosa, but it wasn’t a document that I could have. Of course Emergency Response had a copy.

The Illinois EPA table was across the room, staffed by, among others, Joe Dombrowski, the designated project manager of the ongoing environmental investigation. Yes, a written list of chemicals stored on site at Formosa had been supplied to the IEPA. No, I couldn’t have a copy, but I could file a Freedom of Information Act request. Behind the table was a map of the county over which was superimposed a series of concentric rings and arrows, with the site of the Formosa plant as the bull’s eye. This was truly interesting. It depicted wind direction and speed during the first seventy-two hours after the explosion. Essentially, during the three days the fire burned, the wind made a complete 360-degree turn. It also rained during this time. When I asked if copies of this map were available to the public or if it were posted on a website somewhere, the answers were no and no. When I asked if the smoke plume itself had been mapped, I was told it wasn’t done that night and couldn’t be done now.

The second half of that sentence was simply untrue. There are several good computer models for mapping wind-dispersion patterns of toxic materials. Radioactive fallout can be mapped. So can dioxin.

On the far side of the room were the tables for the Illinois Department of Public Health. From its representatives, I learned that no one knew whether cancer rates in this community were higher than normal and that there were no immediate plans to conduct such a study. The department would be glad to run the numbers, I was told, if someone in the community asked for that analysis to be conducted. So far, no one had.

To learn something at this event you had to come up with exactly the right question, a task I myself was failing. I looked over at the Formosa table and decided to give it one more try. “Let me make sure I have this straight. If someone in Illiopolis came up to you and asked what chemicals you store out at your plant, your answer would be what exactly?” I received another harangue about proprietary information and corporate competitiveness. I was told I should learn something about how vinyl is made. Read a chemical engineering book. Go to At some point, I quit listening because the glowering scowl on the Formosa plant manager’s face came to resemble so closely that of the pirate’s above our heads that I got distracted. I was trying to remember what I knew about the Formosan pirates of yore. I dimly recalled that their ships had terrorized the coasts of Taiwan during the Dutch occupation.

Outside in the parking lot, I ran into Rayeanna Stacey. I asked if Formosa had ever provided her a chemical inventory. She said no.

On July 13, Formosa began loading its unexploded stockpiles of vinyl chloride and vinyl acetate into two dozen railroad cars for transfer to its other plants. The image of ninety-ton tanker cars full of liquid explosives rattling across the plains — to where? Texas? Louisiana? Delaware? New Jersey? — was deeply unsettling. The train tracks that traverse the back yards of countless small towns and big cities are now used to transport all manner of dangerous chemicals. Each year in the United States, 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials travel the rails. These include the highly explosive feedstocks for America’s floors. According to the Argonne National Laboratory, vinyl chloride ranks 8th among the top 150 hazardous materials most heavily shipped by rail.

CLACKING TANKER CARS. A nostalgic train whistle. Predawn darkness. Now insert into this picture a terrorist armed with a device of the kind once manufactured by the Illiopolis plant during its incarnation as a bomb factory. It’s hard to write these words — as if the very act of describing horrific possibilities has the power to make them come true. (My young children believe strongly that this is so. If they knew what I was saying here, they would cover my mouth with their hands and whisper, “Don’t speak it, Mama!”) But I have stood at Ground Zero, and I can now imagine a hijacked tanker train and a major metropolitan area. I can imagine a truck, a suicide bomber, and a vat of vinyl chloride. I can imagine a PVC plant used as a weapon of mass destruction.

Such scenarios are the motivation behind various congressional chemical security bills — none of which has so far passed. Two months after 9/11, New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine drafted the Chemical Security Act. Among other things, the bill would have compelled chemical plants to assess the availability of safer alternatives to inherently dangerous technologies. After intense lobbying by the chemical industry, the bill foundered.

In October 2004, the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE) released a survey that attempts to pierce the secrecy surrounding antiterrorism initiatives at U.S. chemical plants. Based on the observations of workers in 125 such plants, the union reports that while three-quarters of facilities have added guards and fences in response to 9/11, fewer than 17 percent have made changes in the design of their operations that would make chemical processes inherently safer.

BACK IN NEW YORK, I sweep my kitchen floor. Bending down to separate the dropped crayons from the day’s crumbs, I wonder if Bradford Bradshaw — or any of his five dead co-workers — might have had a hand in stringing together the molecules that make up this floor. It’s not a remote possibility. Prior to April 23, 2004, the Formosa plant in Illiopolis made fully half of all the flooring-grade vinyl in the United States.

Now when I look at my floral-patterned floor I think of emergency sirens that fail to go off. I imagine the hushed urgency of evacuees taking to the roads. I see tanker cars rattling through towns where unsuspecting citizens sleep. My visit to Illiopolis was a vivid illustration of how the manufacture of PVC is an ongoing source of terror for the workers and the people living in the communities where it is made. And yet, phasing out chlorine-based chemical manufacturing, in which PVC plays a starring role, will require a federal government uncorrupt enough to place the chemical security of the nation, as well as the health of all its citizens, above corporate interests.

In the U.S. Congress, the substitution of alternative, less toxic materials is not even part of the dialogue. Instead, the biggest trend since 9/11 is growing secrecy about which chemicals are used where and how they are transported. Public knowledge about chemical manufacturing is becoming increasing limited.

At the local level, by contrast, there are some hopeful signs. In January 2005, the Washington, D.C., city council voted to ban train and truck shipments of deadly chemicals within two miles of the Capitol. Other cities are considering similar bans. One railroad company has already filed suit, and others are likely to follow. Legislation that reroutes trains carrying explosives, extreme flammables, and cargo that is known in the transportation business as TIH — toxic by inhalation — will raise the cost of transporting such poisons and may encourage a shift toward alternative materials. It also may indicate that the public is beginning to wake up to the widespread risks of large-scale toxic production, which we have, so far, passively or unknowingly accepted.

In my own household, I am embracing the concept with which the U.S. Green Building Council is currently grappling: vinyl avoidance. I’ll start with my kitchen floor, which I will soon replace with linoleum or sustainably harvested wood. This will be my personal contribution to homeland security. More to the point, my son, now three years old, has respiratory allergies. I am as invested in protecting his security of person as I am the security of his homeland. Therefore, I also plan to strip from the walls the vinyl wallpaper left behind by the previous family and tear out the PVC-backed carpet in the playroom.

As I ponder all this, Elijah drags his box of toy trains and wooden tracks into the kitchen and excitedly describes a plan to construct a great railroad across the floor. His engines pull tankers labeled flour, oil, and molasses. Derailments are frequent. Watching his engineering project take form, I feel my own resolve stiffen. The dangers posed by PVC are real, but they are not inexorable. We need not remain a nation of Illiopolians, living just downwind of potential catastrophe.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.