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We glow in the dark - The Margin

September 21, 2022

We glow in the dark

A Memphis community demands reparations for unknowingly hosting the toxic waste of war.

Doris Bradshaw, pioneer in the environmental justice movement in Memphis, sits in front of the family home her great grandfather built in the 1930s near a toxic landfill that was within walking distance from their house.  Ariel Cobbert for The Margin

35.1495° N, 90.0490° W / Memphis, Tennessee

By Leanna First-Arai

I.
17 min read

It was October 1995, just as the cool evenings set in, in Memphis, Tennessee, when things began making sense to Doris Bradshaw.

Earlier that year, her 84-year-old grandmother, Susie Hall, had found a few drops of blood in her underwear. After a visit to the doctor led her to a specialist, it turned out that Doris’ grandmother – who spent her days vigorously, growing tomatoes and shelling peas from the yard, rising long before dawn on Sundays to prepare an early afternoon dinner for anyone who’d like to stop in – had developed uterine and kidney cancer. And it had spread to several other sites. By June, her body could no longer take the assault. Everyone was shocked. “[The doctor] told me he had never in his life seen a cancer that aggressive,” Doris, now 68, remembers. “You could see it growing.”

In the weeks prior to her grandmother’s death, Doris had pushed aside an unusual piece of mail: a thick booklet with a white address sticker pasted onto the corner. “There may be some contamination in your community,” she recalls it reading. Doris called the number on the mailer, hoping to speak with someone at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which had sent out the information. The agency did reach out, but in the whirlwind of caring for her grandmother, the pamphlet slipped away.

But soon after her grandmother passed, Doris dug up the booklet again, suspecting a connection. It turned out that the government was suggesting potential toxicity at the Defense Depot Memphis Tennessee (DDMT)— a sprawling site and adjoining field that the U.S. military had, for the past 50 years, used as a distribution, storage, and disposal center for munition, medical supplies, and petroleum products — just blocks away from the Bradshaws. The letter was vague, but it seemed like something everyone should be talking about. Doris drew up some flyers with a skull and crossbones image in the center, calling for a meeting at her children’s school.

On the evening of the meeting, families packed the Norris Elementary school cafeteria. Only some in attendance had received that same ominous mailer. But just about everyone had a story about a family member or neighbors who’d dealt with an odd combination of lethal conditions: kidney disease, brain cancer, or fibroids the size of a softball.

The 634-acre Memphis Defense Depot is a decommissioned United States Army supply that originated as a military facility in the early 1940s. Eventually, chemical disposal at the site began impacting the people in the local community.    Ariel Cobbert for The Margin

There was another thing everyone in the room had in common that day: they lived within walking distance of a 560-plus acre Defense Depot and a roughly 60-acre parcel just north known as Dunn Field, which some families looked out onto from their front stoops. Despite its being fenced off, the field appeared to be a perfect place to picnic, under the shade of oak trees that speckled rolling hills and grass-filled flatlands. But oddities sometimes showed up at the field, like a concrete dome or a stack of long metal rods. And then there was the unseen. Although many of the Dunn Field’s neighbors likely didn’t know it at the time, behind barbed wire and beneath the soil, chemicals drained from mustard bombs had been buried decades ago, laid to rest near dozens of other categories of waste, including numerous vials of lewisite (a chemical weapon); plane crash residue; and 55-gallon drums of oil, grease, and paint thinner.

Residents couldn’t recall signs of warning, but the papers occasionally reported on the Defense Depot. In June 1959, a local newspaper, the Commercial Appeal, described one incident that lasted for several hours:

“The Army fell on troubled times yesterday, trying to bury 20 tons of chemicals,” the story read, describing a 125-foot ditch disposal site at the Depot. “Rain set it ‘afire.’ Bulldozers tried to cover it with dirt. It just added to a churning mess which sent up a big orange cloud. Then an ill wind sent an irritating odor over much of Southeast Memphis.”
The Commercial Appeal

Government officials, meanwhile, were becoming well aware of the danger. In October 1992, after a decade of assessments, including a handful that were commissioned by the U.S. Army, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added the Defense Depot to its inventory of hazardous waste sites awaiting cleanup in the United States. Part of that decision would later include the need to remove 7,200 square feet of soil contaminated with lead and remediate chlorinated volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from groundwater because of their “current and potential risk to human health.” Since then, the Depot has remained on the National Priorities List, which contains sites eligible for cleanup action under the Superfund program. The program lists more than a thousand toxic waste sites across the country in need of cleanup. Superfund sites disproportionately impact communities of color. Doris’ census tract, for instance, is 100% people of color and in the 98th percentile in terms of proximity to a Superfund site.

In that jam-packed Norris Elementary cafeteria, Doris and her neighbors made a formal promise to get to the bottom of the illnesses that touched them all. They would call themselves the Defense Depot Memphis Tennessee Concerned Citizens’ Committee (DDMT-CCC). With a name and a mission, the group began receiving press attention. Soon, Doris received calls from every corner of the United States, confirming that she and her neighbors were far from the only people living near shuttering military sites who were suffering from a host of cancers and other illnesses.

According to the Government Accountability Office, Department of Defense activities have contaminated millions of acres of soil and water on and around military sites, over 100 of which the EPA has brought into the Superfund program. While the majority of the existing 1,300-plus Superfund sites are or were previously owned by private companies, in the case of the Defense Depot, the federal government is both the cleanup authority and the polluting party, which has contributed to skepticism in these communities surrounding how forthcoming officials have been about contamination levels and cleanup progress. To residents, their apprehension appears to be for good reason. About one-third of private Superfund sites have been “deleted” from the list following the EPA’s determination that enough cleanup has occurred. By comparison, only 10 percent of military Superfund sites have seen full cleanups.

On top of severe health impacts, this lag on the part of government agencies has had a crippling economic effect on impacted communities. Researchers have suggested that property values can rebound after Superfund cleanup occurs. The delay in cleanup at the Depot and other military Superfund sites, in what are disproportionately communities of color, may also curb generational wealth building, thus contributing to the racial wealth gap.

When I met Ms. Doris at her home this spring, she told me that for decades, she’s had a clear idea of what some of those polluted acres might be used for and how the Department of Defense and other federal agencies can begin to make amends for the suffering they’ve caused. Propping herself up on a pillow while we talked, a pink Happy Mother’s Day balloon blowing in the breeze above her, Ms. Doris’ eyes lit up as she described what could be: cover the rolling hills of Dunn Field — where the mustard bombs and vials of lewisite were once buried — with solar panels. “All the toxic lands, that’s the only thing they good for.”


Based on data from the U.S. EPA, Office of Land and Emergency Management 2020. Data collected includes: (1) Superfund site information from SEMS as of FY2019 and site boundary data from FY 2014 FOIA Request; and (2) population data from the 2015-2018 American Community Survey. The Margin categorized sites based on text analysis of NPL Narratives from the EPA that identified military or government-related keywords. 

II.

The brick home with a high-perched porch, where Ms. Doris’ son Victor greeted me on a sun-sprinkled afternoon in May, sits proudly between two white-shingled houses that now slouch under the weight of the years. Built by Ms. Doris’ great-grandfather, the houses are settled atop a hill that rises on one side of Mallory Avenue, overlooking what used to be a strawberry field.

The front yard is filled with benches and chairs, a grill and a bird feeder, and holiday lights strung up framing other well-worn signs of time spent gathering. One house to the west, where Ms. Doris moved after she divorced her husband, is now packed to the brim with documents and videotapes from 25 years of organizing and being called on to serve regional and national environmental justice leadership posts. Despite my plea, Ms. Doris can’t show them to me: resting under a fleece blanket, she’s all but bedridden. Ms. Doris has been on dialysis for four years and is awaiting a kidney transplant. Yet she remains determined to fix the roof, now caving in, so that water doesn’t trickle in and damage all the artifacts she’s saved, including the testimony of Depot residents she’s captured on tape, and the legacy of her family. “I was born on this hill,” she tells me. Her street, Mallory Avenue, predates many that have since been paved around it. It also predates the Defense Depot itself.

Having left Mississippi during the Great Migration, Ms. Doris’ family was the first to build on Mallory Ave, just outside of city limits, where they grew peaches and collard greens and raised chickens. They were supported by Ms. Doris’ grandfather, who served in the military and sent money back home to his family, which they used to build and maintain their three family homes.

Suddenly, in the scramble of preparing for war, in 1942, one month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ms. Doris’ family’s part of town was granted an official purpose. The Army's Quartermaster Corps purchased 500 acres of prime Mississippi Delta farmland for what the Army assessed to be worth $165,000 a year earlier, just south of where the Illinois Central Railroad intersects with the St. Louis–San Francisco Railroad, to build a massive supply center from which it would send and receive equipment to troops stationed all over the globe.

Around that time, patriotism and pride filled newspaper headlines: “Even before the Japanese attack, the spirit of defense was evident in this Memphis Armistice Day parade of 1941,” read the caption on a cartoon depicting Uncle Sam smoking a cigar in an armchair while inspecting a photograph taken in Memphis. Over 3,500 new jobs were made available, all supporting “heroic” war efforts, and at least one top-ranking officer was sent to town to help run the Depot, including its Chemical Warfare section.

Then, in July 1946, eight freight cars filled with 500-kilogram German mustard bombs arrived in Memphis, several of which leaked on the way from New Orleans to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, injuring dozens of workers. Once they were removed and neutralized in Memphis, the bombs needed to be buried, and Dunn Field — that rolling, grassy patch also used as a pistol range and to test flamethrowers — appeared to be the perfect location.

The houses on Hays Road, the street that serves as Dunn Field’s eastern boundary, weren’t there yet. But less than a mile away, Ms. Doris’ family was busy building what would become their three family homes, above creeks and drainage ditches, the arteries of the area.

Frank Johnson, environmental activist, stands in the 634-acre Memphis Defense Depot less than two miles from his childhood school.The former warehousing and distribution center for the U.S. military was used as a dumping ground for chemical and toxic materials.    Ariel Cobbert for The Margin
III.

First thing on a dry, hot morning in May, I drove over to Hamilton High School to meet Ms. Doris’ neighbor, Frank Johnson.

Frank, 45, is equal parts jolly and incensed. He’s a compact, charismatic opera singer who went to journalism school and now works as a neighborhood connector for a Memphis-based non-profit, the Center for Transforming Communities.

As we crossed a bridge over Cane Creek, connecting the high school parking lot to its sports field, the blackberry bushes and beech trees that sprung up from the concrete-lined creek below offered a glimpse of what the land may have looked like before the Defense Depot spliced it up.

Despite the lushness, many who live and go to school here didn’t necessarily choose to do so, Frank impresses upon me. Like many families that now reside in the area surrounding the Depot, Frank is here because his family was displaced by multiple waves of racist government policy. Otherwise, Frank and his family might have been living farther from the Depot, closer to downtown, where his grandfather, Frank Johnson Sr., once built the family a house on Porter Street.

The original structure where Frank Sr. resided with his wife, Eva, and their seven children is no longer there. It was the family’s place: a set of walls that they crafted and owned. Frank Sr., who escaped slavery (after the ratification of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery) and worked many jobs to maintain it, including as an auto mechanic, boiler helper, and farmworker. But in the 1930s and early 1940s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), a New Deal–era government-sponsored corporation, created a map which redlined a vast swath of the city backing up to the Mississippi River, including Porter Street, designating it as hazardous.

Similar maps from the era note that these “hazardous” neighborhoods could be characterized by “detrimental influences in a pronounced degree” and an “undesirable population,” which implied the presence of non-whites or migrants — “or an infiltration of it.” As a result of the practice, as occurred all around the U.S., Black residents like Frank Sr. couldn’t obtain loans, and investment was funneled elsewhere.

Then, on the heels of the 1949 American Housing Act, which made $1.5 billion in federal loans and grants available for “urban redevelopment,” city politicians surveyed sites that would “make available considerable land and eradicate a good portion of the present slum areas,” including the swells and stream channels where Frank Sr. had built his life. City officials would ultimately build a major thoroughfare bisecting the area diagonally, connecting a bridge with Interstate 55 and naming it E.H. Crump Boulevard.

Having been redlined and targeted for slum clearance, Frank Sr.’s house was seized through eminent domain and then condemned: the first, but not the last time that racist housing policy would encroach on the family’s health and ability to grow wealth, Frank told me. One day around 1950, Frank Sr. and his family returned home to find all their belongings on the front lawn. The family moved up the road, into a public housing project known as William H. Foote Homes, which would later be found to have been built on a bayou that had been landfilled with potentially contaminated soil.

It wasn’t the same as having their own space, and the move took a toll. In September 1951, months after being displaced from Porter Street, Frank’s father found his dad hunched over the kitchen table without a pulse. “I think that broke him,” Frank told me. “Died suddenly without attendance,” his death certificate read. “No medical history could be obtained.”

Wanting to give their mother a home of her own again, in 1959, Frank Sr.’s son William Johnson, a 27-year-old veteran and U.S. postal worker, purchased a lot in what would be the first addition to Norris View Subdivision, where Frank would grow up in a brick house with black shutters, blocks away from the Defense Depot.

A decade prior, in 1948, the Supreme Court had essentially struck down the use of racial covenants, which had previously prevented residents of color from purchasing homes or land in an area designated “white.” But in practice, subdivisions in much of the expanding city continued to be segregated, designed “for negros” or “for whites.”

Back at Hamilton High, two miles from Frank’s home, we crossed back over the concrete bridge before heading to an identical one on the west side of the building. I had wanted to visit the school because Ms. Doris told me that it was built on top of Cane Creek, which according to government documents, catches drainage emptying from the Depot. Sure enough, the creek runs directly under the school cafeteria, like a mid-south Venice-gone-wrong, before emptying into Nonconnah Creek, a larger ribbon that elbows under highways and railroad tracks until its watershed joins the Mississippi River. The bridges we crossed have, for years, provided cover for young couples stealing away for a moment alone. The slow bubbling of its water is matched by cars racing along Elvis Presley Boulevard toward downtown. It’s what Ms. Doris calls the neighborhood’s “lover’s lane.” Today, it smells of jasmine.

What’s buried at the Depot has broken down over time, and residents fear the water flowing here has carried potent chemicals to teenagers and their teachers day after day, below the school and along its sports fields, possibly exposing multiple generations to powerful toxins. Government agencies haven’t alerted residents to the creek’s potential danger because despite repeated community requests, officials have declined to study its contents.

Archival photo of the Foote Homes in Memphis, Tennessee.    Courtesy of Memphis and Shelby County archives at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library
IV.

For as long as Frank can remember, Ms. Doris has been a neighborhood presence. When he was a kid, she walked the streets, at least a mile a day, talking to young people and heeding her doctor’s orders to “stay active.” “I mean, everybody knows Ms. [Doris]. Everybody,” Frank said when I asked him to describe her.

But after the 1995 meeting at Norris Elementary, where DDMT-CCC was born, Ms. Doris was frequently out of town. “My mission was to go out and find what has happened to this community,” she described.

Doris Bradshaw and friends.    Courtesy of Doris Bradshaw

Her work took her far and wide, sometimes to Arkansas, to visit her friend Evelyn Yates, who was fighting the construction of what would become the Pine Bluff Chemical Agent Disposal Facility. Other times, it took her to Puerto Rico to meet with residents living around the U.S. Navy’s former Naval Training Range on the island of Vieques, where from 1941 to the early 2000s, the Navy stored ammunition and conducted live-training bombing and gunfire exercises. “Everywhere there was a military site, people were leading that fight. They knew things was wrong,” Ms. Doris explained. Many were fast friends, like Chavez Lopez, who lived near the former Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and LeVonne Stone, who lived near the former Fort Ord Army post near Monterey, California.

As Ms. Doris continued to meet others with parallel stories – so similar, yet hundreds of miles away from Memphis – she was struck by memories and retrospective realizations of exposure. She thought about the pipes and how that gooseneck bend below the kitchen sink never lasted more than a year before needing to be replaced. “That metal, it’d crumble in your hand. So, whatever was in the water, we had all got it in us,” Ms. Doris remembered. She thought back to how when she took her old Scottish Terrier, Princess, out into the grass for her morning pee, the dog developed blisters on its legs where it brushed up against the dew. Ms. Doris knew better than to walk on the wet grass herself — when she was younger, she would always get sores when she played in the mornings. She thought, too, about the time when her son Rudolph’s neck swelled up so badly after playing in a pile of soil dug up from a Cane Creek culvert that she had to rush him to the hospital.

The Cane Creek drainage ditch carries Memphis Defense Depot overflow directly under the grounds of Hamilton High School.    Ariel Cobbert for The Margin

By the end of the 1990s, some things around the Depot began to change. In 1995, along with nearly three dozen other military installations around the United States, a branch of the Department of Defense recommended the closure of Memphis’ Defense Depot. City and county officials teamed up and launched a group that would coordinate the sprawling facility’s reuse, called the Depot Redevelopment Corporation, which in 1997 commissioned a lengthy plan calling for a public recreation center, eight units of housing for the homeless, and some 60,000 square feet for a police compound.

By 2001, the EPA and state regulators, too, had a more formalized plan. It proposed  removing thousands of square feet of soil for disposal at a hazardous waste facility and a process known as enhanced bioremediation — the injection of electron donors, like sodium lactate into more than 50 wells to consume pollutants in the aquifer and accelerate the natural process of degradation. Altogether, the remedies were projected to cost $2.5 million.

Despite this effort, the approach didn’t inspire much confidence for Ms. Doris and many of her neighbors because they continued to feel left out of the process. During dozens of meetings, area residents’ health concerns were met with ongoing dismissal. Part of this problem was a lack of representation: at first, not a single member from an immediate community was invited to serve on the Department of Defense’s initial Restoration Advisory Board.

There were plenty of other problems too. Workers complained of headaches and nausea while excavating for mustard bombs, which went unreported to the community for a month. At a 1999 meeting hosted by the DDMT-CCC and the Memphis Health Center, former workers who raised concerns about what they had observed on Depot property claimed they were reprimanded at work or forced to quit. And the official risk assessment was full of contradictory information on whether workers and residents were safe. One resident pointed out the document’s statement that solvents were found at “unacceptable levels” in a certain section of the Depot but that the same area was deemed “acceptable” for both occupational and residential use. EPA officials found their own red flags: “The way the [risk assessment] was organized suggests that the writer was trying to hide something,” a 1997 letter to a Depot official read.

At one meeting, which community members organized in response to a wave of cervical and uterine cancer diagnoses in area teenagers and young women, a city official made a particularly disparaging comment when accused of not adequately responding to residents’ health concerns. “They said that we eat too much pig feet and bologna,” Ms. Doris recalled, in reference to the official’s explanation for the cancer cluster. “And that the women are promiscuous.”

“It was the notion of ‘blame the victim’ because the science is not there,” Dr. Rueben Warren, who worked closely with Ms. Doris on the Memphis Defense Depot case as the director of urban affairs at the ATSDR, told me recently over the phone. “That was not uncommon for the federal government to be in denial of what was going on,” he said.

Frustrated some days and furious others, in 1999, Ms. Doris invited a team of independent scientists at the Howard University Environmental Justice Partnership to visit. “Doris brought a whole lot of energy to the table,” Dr. Vernon Morris, a founding member of the group, recalled. The team was interdisciplinary and included an atmospheric scientist, a chemist, and a civil engineer. They took an altogether different approach to the science. After conducting home visits with residents and reviewing government documents, the majority of which Ms. Doris had obtained through public records requests, the researchers noted how previous studies had failed to collect soil and water samples in the places where residents were most concerned about potential exposure — like Cane Creek at Hamilton High. Previous studies had also used generic tests for “pesticides, metals and VOCs,” rather than identifying tracers, like arsenic, or other substances that would signal that chemical warfare agents had broken down over the years and migrated off-site, Morris said. The entirety of the process, from testing to publication, took six years, and by 2006, Depot area residents finally had data that supported their suspicions.

One finding was particularly unnerving. At three of the four sites they tested, including Cane Creek at Hamilton High, levels of chromium, a lustrous metal with several different compounds, some of which have been linked with respiratory, renal, gastrointestinal, and developmental issues, as well as cancer, were detected at 126 parts per million — triple the EPA’s limit at the time. It seemed to be more than a coincidence. In the short term, according to EPA documents, exposure to certain forms of chromium can cause skin irritation and ulcers — similar to what Ms. Doris’ son Rudolph suffered after playing in the dirt and the Scottish Terrier experienced after brushing up against dew-laden grass at dawn. In the long term, repeated exposure can cause kidney issues, like what Ms. Doris suffers from today.

Although it was only one piece of the puzzle, it was something. “You had some really extreme exposures that were traceable to the Memphis Defense Depot,” Morris, now the director of the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences at Arizona State University, recalled of the team’s findings. “And that was in 2000. You do the mathematics and go back in time and that ramps up exponentially. I mean, in 1950, you’re getting slammed,” he said. “And now you’ve got generational effects.”

Frank Johnson, environmental activist, sit on the steps of Believe Memphis Academy, his old school, that is within walking distance from a toxic landfill.    Ariel Cobbert for The Margin
V.

After high school, Frank somewhat lost touch with the Bradshaws. But in 2014, Frank’s sister Karan developed a brain tumor in the very same spot as her mother’s, who had passed away in 1999. Reeling from this news, Frank ran into the sister of his old friend Victor, Ms. Doris’ son, who invited him over to the brick home on the hilltop.

It had been a while. Ms. Doris was there, and she asked about his family. Frank told her about Karan. “You know that’s a common cancer over here,” Ms. Doris said. She explained the work she’d been doing over the past two decades; as it turned out, two generations of residents had been calling it “Depot Cancer.” “Diagnosed on Sunday, dead by the next Sunday,” so the saying went. Frank started researching. Much like the realizations Ms. Doris had in the mid-nineties, the more Frank researched, the more neighbors came to mind. “It’s like it’s the same story,” he said. “We’d been glowing in the dark over here for years.”

By the time Frank got involved, Ms. Doris was struggling with her own health issues and was forced to slow down. Despite her illness, Ms. Doris still managed to stay on top of the latest news. In July 2021, she’d heard word that the city and county’s Economic Development Growth Engine, or the EDGE Board – an authority funded into existence by the sale of Depot facilities, was planning to vote on dissolving the Depot Redevelopment Corporation (DRC), the group that city and county officials had formed in 1997 and authorized to manage the sale of much of the Depot. To residents, the DRC’s dissolution would signal that more than 10 million dollars it was granted from that sale to oversee redevelopment in the area had been spent by officials without the involvement of DDMT-CCC members – those most affected by and involved with advocating for residents. Ms. Doris, her daughter Marquita, Frank, and others showed up to the board meeting to stop the vote in its tracks.

Depot area residents were not alone in alleging that they’d been left out of the redevelopment process. Joe Kent — a former workforce and curriculum development specialist, who also identifies as a taxpayer justice advocate and has been working to track what he refers to as “systematic disinvestment” from the Depot area neighborhoods by the EDGE Board — also showed up. He later told me that the depletion of proceeds from the Depot sale to private investors is the greatest taxpayer atrocity he’s ever seen.

Documents Kent has obtained from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, DRC and EDGE Board reveal that over the past decade, since the sale of the Depot facilities, which generated over $24 million, the EDGE Board has issued generous grants. But the money hasn’t flowed to the Depot area itself. On the contrary, it’s been drained from it. Perhaps most shockingly, the EDGE Board has sent hundreds of thousands of DRC dollars to the chambers of commerce in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, and Millington — wealthy, majority white, suburban Shelby County towns — for “local economic development initiatives.” Frank claims that no equivalent grants have been issued to Depot-area residents.

Of $10.6 million the DRC had in current assets on its books in 2012, as of 2022, just over $2,000 remained. Representatives of the EDGE Board and DRC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“The EDGE Board stole our money that was supposed to come here,” Ms. Doris said. “We would have had solar panels over there. They sent it everywhere but to this community.”

VI.

Where workers once ran down wooden planks to pack up uniforms and fuel bound for every corner of the globe; where Ms. Doris once peered through the barbed wire fence crowning Dunn Field; and where Frank once walked to Norris Elementary, along a drainage ditch and dodging dead birds on his way, now sits an industrial park where a blue and white sign soliciting vacancies is mounted prominently on the road leading south to the airport.

Old shipping containers at Memphis Defense Depot.    Ariel Cobbert for The Margin

Since the early 2000s, according to EPA reports, the Depot grounds have gotten cleaner: soils once contaminated with metals, petroleum hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds have been excavated, hauled off-site, and treated. The once contaminated groundwater has gone through rounds of enhanced bioremediation and air sparging. Forty-six acres of the former Depot are now home to a golf course open to anyone wanting to play 9 holes over lunch. Barnhart Crane & Rigging purchased 143 acres to store lifting equipment for heavy industry. But while these remedies and new land uses are “protective of human health,” as public notices proclaim, the Depot grounds remain a Superfund site.

No reparations have been made for generational harm to Black families’ health and finances. No solar panels are to be found on Dunn Field, and no community health centers are in close proximity of residents in need of preventative care to help facilitate early diagnosis of cancer or kidney failure — two things Ms. Doris says area residents, the survivors of the Defense Depot, are still owed. Instead, there’s a police station.

Outside of Hamilton High, the trickle of Cane Creek behind us, Frank told me he wants to see officials make things right for residents like his sister Karan, who after brain surgery to remove her tumor, now has trouble walking and speaking. Two generations of Depot residents have died amid a fight for transparency and a cleaner, safer neighborhood, without seeing many improvements in their lifetimes. In spite of their service to the country, veterans like Frank’s father and Ms. Doris’ grandfather have faced the ripple effects of military activity, from PTSD to “Depot Cancer” diagnoses.

“Admit what the hell you did wrong,” Frank says, referring to his wish for a formal apology from government agencies, including the Department of Defense. “You have a lot of burden here, people just beating themselves up thinking that we did something wrong. Black folks thinking that we brought this upon ourselves, that we’re not eating right, when it’s not that,” he told me indignantly. “It’s living next to these sites.”

Doris Bradshaw.    Ariel Cobbert for The Margin

When I visited Ms. Doris again last May, a warm breeze brushed over her hill as she opened an envelope addressed to her from Methodist hospital. Ms. Doris is waiting for good news any day now: a call confirming that her doctor has found a kidney donor. At 68, she’s the oldest person on her block, and she intends to keep it that way. With her kidney failure under control, after the transplant, she’ll be able to keep fighting for her family and neighbors, as she’s been doing her whole life.

“I’m going to be okay,” she assures me. “I told my grandson, ‘I ain’t going nowhere ’til you graduate.’”

***

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Credits to:
  • Written by Leanna First-Arai
  • Produced and Edited by Bryce Cracknell
  • Photography by Ariel Cobbert
  • Data storytelling by EJ Fox
  • Creative direction by Stephen Downs
  • Fact-checking by Matthew Giles

Additional contributions by Megan Ahearn, Ed Boyda, Maria Edwards, Kacper Faligowski, Martyna Gołębiewska, Mason Grimshaw, Magdalena Kęsik, Łukasz Knasiecki, Ada Makowska, Scott Quill, Arek Romański, Mikołaj Szczepkowski, Jose Valenzuela, Michał Zagojski

Data + Resources

Data and methodology for this story can be found on GitHub. Data and methodology for all Margin stories can be found here.

Superfund Sites data from the U.S. EPA, Office of Land and Emergency Management 2020. Data collected includes: (1) Superfund site information from SEMS as of FY2019 and site boundary data from FY 2014 FOIA Request; and (2) population data from the 2015-2018 American Community Survey. The Margin categorized sites based on text analysis of NPL Narratives from the EPA that identified military or government-related keywords. Full script and methodology can be found in the GitHub repo.

Redlining map and data from Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, accessed September 20, 2022.

See also

Rebuilding the Homestead

How Black Landowners in Eastern North Carolina Are Recovering Generational Wealth Lost to Industry Encroachment

35.8038° N, 76.8283° W Piney Woods, NC
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