Friday, January 20, 2017

Book Review: Killing Horses

Book Review: 'Killing Horses' by Judy Piatt

In the Spring of 1971 Judy Piatt (1938 – 2013), a 32 year-old single mother of two young daughters, was the part owner and operator of Shenandoah Stables in Moscow Mills, a village northwest of St. Louis, Missouri.

Shenandoah Stables, besides housing the horses of Piatt and those horse owners who chose to board their animals there, had an dirt-floor arena used for horse shows. As May of 1971 unfolded, the dust raised in the arena whenever it was used was enough of a problem for Piatt to decide to have it oiled.

Among the regular attendees at horse shows at the stables were Russell and Evelyn Bliss, who owned their own stables in nearby Ellisville. Russell Bliss was an affluent, self-made businessman who specialized in picking up and disposing of ‘waste oil’ from service stations, power plants, and chemical plants. One method that Bliss used to dispose of the oil was to spray it on dirt roads and arenas to prevent dust from forming.

At 7:20 am on May 26, a Bliss tanker truck pulled up at Shenandoah Stables and the driver, Gary Lambarth, sprayed an estimated 1500 – 2000 gallons of oil onto the arena. The fee: $150.

Immediately upon the application of the oil, Piatt noticed that the oil had a powerful acrid odor that stung her eyes. Upon questioning, Lambarth told that the oil contained ‘special stuff’ for ‘special customers’. 

Within the week, Piatt began noticing dead birds in the vicinity of the stables……her cats had lost patches of their fur and developed open lesions in their skin….and Mama cat’s new litter all had died. Then Mama cat died. Soon all twelve of the ‘stable cats’ had died, yowling in agony as their faces swelled and pus oozed from their closed eyelids.

Then Piatt noticed that her daughters Andi and Lori had developed a strange acne – marked by blackheads – on their faces and chests.

In early June, Ruff, the family dog, became seriously ill. His fur began falling out and sores, oozing pus, developed all over his body. Ruff died despite veterinary treatment.

As June turned to July, an increasingly uneasy Piatt was stunned to see her beloved horses becoming ill. Her veterinarian, James Evans, was unable to provide anything more than supportive treatment….which did nothing to stop the illness.

The horses began dying. They lost their appetites, had diarrhea, stumbled and fell, developed skin lesions and sores. 

Evans suspected that the oil sprayed on the arena contained a poison. Autopsies conducted at the University of Missouri Veterinary School noted that the internal organs of the dead horses displayed severe pathologies associated with some form of poisoning.

Piatt herself became ill. And then in August, six year-old Andi became seriously ill, hemorrhaged blood, and was hospitalized. Over the next several months she lost half her body weight.

The remainder of 1971….and then 1972…….and 1973……..turned into nightmares in which more horses died, Piatt and her daughters got sicker, and Piatt was forced to close the Stables and move. She confronted Russell Bliss about what sort of contaminant might have been present in the oil used to spray the arena at Shenandoah Stables. Bliss denied that the oil was contaminated – as far as he was concerned, it was ‘plain ole waste oil’.

What Judy Piatt didn't know is that Bliss earned considerable income from applying 'waste oil' as a dust control measure. And one of his major clients was the town of Times Beach, located 17 miles southwest of St Louis............

'Killing Horses' (400 pp; Lightnin' Ridge Books, Missouri) is based on decades of notes, photographs, and other documents Judy Piatt assembled as part of a lawsuit she had filed against Bliss and his company, and later, as an environmental activist.

In short chapters, Piatt delivers a first-person narrative of her ordeal. It is clear from the start of the deaths of the animals at her stables that the veterinary and public health infrastructures were completely unprepared to deal with mass poisoning events; the EPA, which began operating in December 1970, simply was not a presence. If not for the dogged efforts of a team of CDC investigators, the cause of the contamination likely would never have been discovered.

'Killing Horses', which was written entirely by Piatt with no editorial assistance, is not a perfect book. Many of the chapters recounting the demises of one treasured horse or pony or colt after the other are probably going to seem tedious to readers who are not horse lovers. 

But the final third of the book, when Piatt and Shenandoah Stables co-owner Frank Hampel begin conducting their own investigation of Bliss's operation, is an interesting - and very alarming - account of how the illicit dumping of toxic chemicals was widespread across Missouri.

The verdict ? Given the dearth of books dealing with the firsthand consequences of the Toxic 70s, 'Killing Horses' represents a worthwhile narrative. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Consumers

The Consumers
by Gerry Boudreau (story) and Jun Lofamia (art)
from Creepy No. 136 (March 1982)

This grim tale of global cooling and environmental disaster is ably illustrated by the Filippino artist Jun Lofamia, who primarily did work for comics and magazines in the Philippines. During the 70s and 80s he provided illustrations for US publishers like Warren and DC. In 2014 Lofamia provided cover art for the IDW series Black Dynamite.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Review: The Poison that Fell from the Sky

Book Review: 'The Poison that Fell from the Sky' by John G. Fuller

At 12:37 in the afternoon of Saturday, July 10, 1977, people living in the vicinity of the town of Meda, Italy, heard a muffled explosion coming from the grounds of the ICMESA chemical plant.  

A cloud of white smoke rose into the air above the plant, and in the ensuing hours, drifted over Meda and the nearby towns of Seveso, Desion, and Cesano Maderno. At least 1,000 acres - much of it consisting of small farms and residential areas - was contaminated by the cloud.

The residents of the affected areas described seeing a 'fog' that left a wet residue where it touched and had a bitter, acrid odor. Within hours of the passage of the cloud, the residents noticed that the vegetation began to display patterns of yellow spotting.

After the cloud dissipated, the residents of Seveso and the other affected towns shrugged and resumed eating lunch, and harvesting the fruits, vegetables, and livestock that many families raised to supplement their diets.

But before nightfall, many residents who had been in the path of the cloud began to notice health problems, including the emergence of sores and lesions on their skin. Other residents noticed small animals dying from the effects of the cloud; some even saw birds literally dropping from the sky.

A day after the explosion at the plant and the formation of the toxic cloud, the director of the ICMESA plant asked the mayor of Seveso to convey a warning to the town's residents: they should not eat any fruit from their trees. 

As the week began, more and more residents began to complain of illness associated with the passage of the cloud. On Friday, July 16, a two year-old baby was hospitalized with weeping sores all over his body.

As the residents of Seveso - and then an entire region of Lombardy, Italy - were about to learn, they were the victims of the greatest toxic disaster ever to strike Europe.....

In 'The Poison the Fell from the Sky' (first published in hardback in 1977; this 163 pp, Berkley Books paperback was released in January 1979) John G. Fuller provides firsthand reportorial coverage of the accident (he was in France in 1976, and was assigned by The Reader's Digest to investigate the Seveso disaster). 

Fuller toured the Seveso region later in the Summer and early Fall of 1976, and spoke with many of the victims, ICMESA / Roche officials, journalists, and public health officials.

Fuller - an accomplished writer, whose other nonfiction books include Fever, a 70s classic about the investigation of an outbreak of a deadly viral disease - communicates the atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that fell over much of Italy due to the disaster.

An unavoidable drawback of the book is that, being written comparatively early in aftermath of the disaster, it cannot provide an analysis of the long-term complications of the disaster. But Fuller does include a final chapter that examines the disturbing history of toxic disasters up to 1976 and highlights how the negligence of the chemical industry was often a key trigger for these disasters.

Summing up, 'The Poison that Fell from the Sky' remains a worthy account of the Seveso disaster. It's worth getting if you see it on the shelves of your used bookstore.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Mighty Samson: The Pollution People

Mighty Samson
'The Pollution People'
Gold Key / Whitman, December 1974

In keeping with the 'Toxic 70s' theme for this month of January 2017, here's a story featuring Samson, a superhero appearing in his own series with Gold Key / Whitman in the early 70s. In this issue, Samson wanders a postapocalyptic landscape, where mutants created by pollution harbor enmity towards those who corrupted the Earth.

Gold Key was not a participant in the Comics Code Authority, which meant their comics could have 'violent' content - such as the shedding of monster blood in this comic - that was prohibited in books from Marvel and DC.