Surviving Agent Orange: The McKusick Family Story
In 1969, the US Government sprayed Kellner County in Globe, AZ with Agent Orange as part of a Testing Program. This illegal spraying of a toxic nerve gas left the McKusick’s and their neighbors’ in Globe struggling to survive.
The following excerpt from Wikipedia’s Agent Orange page documents the Test Spraying of Agent Orange in the USA:
The University of Hawaii has acknowledged extensive testing of Agent Orange on behalf of the United States Department of Defense in Hawaii along with mixtures of Agent Orange on Kaua’i Island in 1967-68 and on Hawaii Island in 1966; testing and storage in other U.S. locations has been documented by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs…The Veteran Administration has also acknowledged that Agent Orange was used domestically by U.S. forces in test sites throughout the US.
The following article was printed in the Tuscon Weekly, a local Arizona Newspaper, chronicling the ordeal.
Once upon a time, the U.S. Forest Service sprayed something on residents of Globe, Arizona. They are still suffering.
By Blake Morlock,Tucson Weekly, March 1994
The Rattle Of A U.S. Forest Service Chopper that Day in 1969 brought lifelong suffering to these Arizona families. For Bob McCray, Bob McKusick, Billie Shoecraft and Pat Medlin, fate rode beneath a rattle and approached with a Doppler shift.
McCray was building a house tucked inside the timberlines of Kellner Canyon, about three miles south of Globe, Arizona. The house’s skeletal walls rose about his family and a tarp stretched across the rafters served as a makeshift roof that shielded McCray, his wife Rosalie and Paul, their five-month-old baby, from the August sun. As they settled in for a Sunday picnic, a rhythmic rattle rose in pitch, closing above the treetops. A snub-nosed, two-seat U.S. Forest Service helicopter passed overhead. Seconds later, a ghostly bank of pungent mist drifted along the canyon floor, through their home’s framework and forever haunted their lives.
The McCrays suddenly found themselves sopping with some strange concoction that burned their eyes and clung to their skin.
In 1969 McCray stood six-foot-four, rippled with muscle and feared no one. Ripe with ire he gathered his family into his pickup and made for the U.S. Forest Service helipad near his home to get some answers.
Arriving at the landing site, he encountered a line of spectators watching the helicopter restock its payload after strafing the canyon with vapor. McCray broke the line and defiantly made for the helicopter. With equal defiance the chopper revved, lifted, flew over McCray and dowsed him again…
Bob McKusick was showing his family Kellner Canyon clay deposits the potter had recently secured through the Forest Service. Then came the rattle traced by the ghostly bank of pungent mist…
Pat Medlin was stretched out on a picnic table soaking in ultraviolet rays. The young lady in a bikini unwittingly lured the rattle…
Billie Shoecraft awoke earlier that day to the same sounds and groggily stepped out onto her deck into a gauzy curtain of chemicals hanging in the dawn air…
What the four Globe residents would discover is that they were immersed in clouds of Silvex, Dow Chemical’s brand name for a mixture of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. Ten thousand miles away, in Southeast Asia, American servicemen code named it Agent Orange.
Flash Forward 25 years. Shoecraft is dead. Medlin is dying. McKusick is fuming and McCray is tweaking the interests of epidemiologists everywhere.
Shoecraft, McCray and McKusick mobilized almost immediately after their exposure to Silvex, filing lawsuits, creating an international media circus while generally screaming their heads off to anyone would would listen. Virtually everyone who was directly sprayed developed health problems almost immediately. Meldlin lost mobility with days. Paul McCray developed convulsions that topped out at 36 a day. Shoecraft soon developed cancer, as did McCray, as did several other families around the area.
Shoecraft led the fight until she died of cancer in 1976. In the face of government and industry experts who tried to pacify Globe, she staged protests and demanded that the spraying cease.
Shoecraft’s outrage and frame of mind could be summed up in the title of the book she wrote about the affair: Sue the Bastards.
By 1980, when the Globe residents’ class-action lawsuit against Dow was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum and Dow had the court documents sealed, the chemical agents employed in Silvex had been banned. The Globe contingent smelled victory and all parties involved enjoyed a cease-fire throughout the 1980s.
But on two different fronts McCray and McKusick have lobbed volleys that are bound to start the fight all over again. So far their giant adversaries have not fired back.
It seems the toxicity and tenacity of these defoliants and their notorious by-product – dioxin – may have been wildly underestimated by both parties. In the past, the chemicals were thought to have one chance at harm: between the nozzle and the ground. This was also back when contamination was measured in parts per million. Today evidence suggests that Silvex seeps underground, where it lingers indefinitely. And presently it is gauged in parts per trillion as rumors of “zero tolerance” persist.
McCray, a 57-year-old disabled auto mechanic, has kept up on these developments. He’s also kept upon Globe’s scuttlebutt.
Last September McCray, acting on troubling rumors he’d heard, advertised on local radio and in area newspapers that he wanted to know about local cancer incidents. He also circulated a questionnaire.
He expected to shake a few cases loose, but he was completely unprepared for the avalanche of reports of malignancies that poured in.
“I got six hundred responses in the first month. They were coming in so fast there was no way I could keep up,” he says. “I had to ask that the ads be run only once a week.”
Buried beneath the volume of information were the specifics McCray sought.
There were 30 cases of Soft Tissue Sarcoma (a cancer affect tendons and ligaments) as well as more than 40 cases each of Hodgkin’s Disease and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (cancers of the lymph nodes.) And he’s still counting.
According to the National Institute of Health statistics, the Globe-Miami area should experience one case of STS every two years, one case of Hodgkin’s Disease and three cases of NHL each year.
The only other known U.S. Group abundantly afflicted with these cancers are Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange.
In 1991 and 1993 Congress earmarked money for Vietnam veterans diagnosed with these aliments who were exposed to the defoliants. While the government is obligated to compensate veterans who were exposed to the herbicides half a world away, an American citizen dowsed in his or her own backyard by the same chemical gets no such deal.
And plenty of Globe residents could have been in their own backyards on June 8, 1969.
For evidence McCray notes the cases are not evenly distributed throughout the population.
“All these odd-ball cancers are being found around the canyons,” McCray says.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is curious.
“I talked to McCray and I think his numbers are very interesting,” say Linda Birnbaum, EPA health research director. “I think we need t do more research on it. What I’d like to see done is a case-control study to see if there is indeed a increase in cancer incidents and (Agent Orange) exposure.”
The Arizona State health Department says it is the one to do the job. Dr. Time Flood, chief epidemiologist of the state’s cancer registry, wants to get hold of McCray’s figures.
“Most of the clusters were get are in the cities,” he says. “They usually involve common cancers. But this soft-tissue sarcoma is relatively rare and it’s easier to trace to a cause.”
Flood also is quick to add that state research does not support McCray’s numbers. But he admits the state registry is woefully lacking in rural areas and only extends back to 1991.
He says he wants to talk to McCray, who is dubious of state assistance.
Flood: “I plan on meeting with him because he has better numbers than we do.”
McCray: “They want to take control of this study so they can say there isn’t a problem. When I’ve finished the registry then I’ll turn it over to them.”
If McCray sounds paranoid, it’s because, he says, everyone’s been against him for quite some time.
Globe is the Brigadoon of Arizona, caught somehow 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, fed by the blessed copper deposits that sprinkle the local underground strata. It’s also a scenic rest stop on the road to Arizona’s rim country, at the intersection of Tucson’s North Oracle Road and Phoenix’s superstition Highway. It’s a place of tourism.
McCray’s rumblings have undermined both Globe’s stability and attraction. Fueling local skepticism has been a government and industry propaganda blitz. Their 19870s reassurance campaign has since collapsed under the scrutiny of further research, but in the meantime McCray bore the brunt of Globe’s denial.
During the past 20 years he’s done a full gainer into defoliant research, trying to prove that he and his town were exposed to something that was, and still is, lethal.
“I had to lie a lot,” he says. “Doctors won’t tell you anything unless they think you’re a doctor, too. They have a God-complex and can’t believe an auto-mechanic can understand what they’re saying.”
Now, he says, doctors call him for advice.
A Local consensus seems to be stirring that McCray was right all along.
After a recent story in The Arizona Silver Belt in Globe, the town’s one-time avarice turned into assistance. More people have approached McCray with tales of cancer, and no one is calling him “Crazy McCray”.
“I received one negative (response) and maybe one hundred positives,” he says. “People are starting to get it.”
It’s been a long haul for McCray, who has been spurred by scads of nervous energy and constant skepticism of even tumultuous times.
“I’ve been beaten up, threatened with my life, lied to, barred from public meetings. Now everything I predicted is coming true,” he says. “We have been lied to time and time again.”
While McCray fifths for redemption, McKusick fights for water, specifically for replacing allegedly tainted well water flowing into the 100-plus homes lining Kellner Canyon.
McKusick, who has rare contact with McCray on the matter, is a knee-jerk talker. He knows what he can’t prove but voices his opinions anyway.
Much of his worry stems from the condition of his livestock. Since the 1950s he’s kept animals on his property, which lies on either side of Kellner Creek. Drinking from and splashing in the creek, his goats serve much like the canaries miners once took with them down shafts to warm of danger. McKusick says he never had a problem with his livestock until the spray. Since then, incidents of birth defects among kids spike after flooding in the canyons.
“The chemicals are locked inside the clay underground, but when it rains they’re released,” he says.
Never in Globe’s history did it rain like it did last year. And during the past 12 months, one kid was born with reproductive organs backwards, two more were born with anal openings, and a foruth was born with a cleft palate and has grown very little.
“If the livestock is okay, you’re safe. Our livestock is not okay,” McKusick says. “The problem is still here. We are still contaminated.”
Since 1973 the canyon’s residents, wary of what my bubble up in their wells, have hauled their own water from Globe’s city spigot three miles away.
In 1990, they approached the Gila County Board of Supervisors for assistance in coaxing the federal government to ameliorate the damage done in the 1960s by bankrolling new waterlines allowing them to hook into the city’s system.
“They make the mines reclaim the damage they do to the environment,” McKusick says. “What happens when the federal government destroys our drinking water? What happens then?” Leon Lenox, Kellner Canyon water district chairman, is wary of publicity, and is applying good cop to McKusick’s bad cop.
“We don’t want to hurt this town by raising a scare,” he says. “But damage was done-not that it was done with any ill will because I don’t believe it was. We are just recovering what has been lost.”
Cruz Salas, the wee-respected chairman of the Gila County Board of Supervisors, says he’s trying to help. “I’ve had this in the back of my mind for a while. I thought it kind of got left by the wayside. It’s time we get back on it.”
Steve Besich, assistant Gila County administrator, is the supervisors’ assistant to the water district. The county charged him with navigating the bureaucratic straits of Washington, D.C., to help resolve the situation.
Besich says that for three years the course has been anything but steady. Besich has dealt with two congressional office – Jon Kyl’s and Karan English’s – and has been bounced between the EPA and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. All that’s resulted was a slapdash state study of Silvex-specked ground samples. And the discovery that there are no safe levels for Silvex.
“You could say it’s been difficult going,” Besich says. “You call an agency and talk to someone and they tell you all the things they’re going to do for you. Then you can back and it’s ‘No such number, no such phone.'”
Besich says the first thing he wants done is a full study to determine if the area is still contaminated. By this he means taking soil, plant, animal, water and human tissue samples.
“It’s our contention there is a problem and it’s caused by the actions of the federal government. So they should pay to fix the problem,” he says. “If there’s nothing wrong, then they can prove it.”
As much trouble as Besich encountered accomplishing a few steps, proving a health hazard to academic satisfaction would be a ungodly difficult prospect.
Though Congress has settled the issue regarding Vietnam veterans, that only required a public groundswell beneath elected officials. Besich is aiming for scientific proof. In doing so he marches into a much meaner political gauntlet. The scientific community has for two decades been engaged in a bitter and inconclusive battle over the danger of herbicides like 2,4,5-T, 2,4-D and Silvex.
If McCray’s numbers or McKusick’s water establish a link between chemicals and illness, industry liability could be stratospheric. As could the federal agencies’ that employed them domestically and abroad.
This struggle has been intensified by the elusiveness of the defoliants and dioxin.
It starts with a shell game: Is it the dioxin or the defoliants themselves that cause cancer and other health problems?
In 1976, Times Beach, Missouri, was exposed to high concentrations of dioxin. It happened when a hazardous waste removal contractor also contracted to oil the town’s roads and accidentally coated them with dioxin instead. Times Beach was permanently evacuated and residents were forced to abandon their belongings.
Daryl Roberts, a Missouri Health Department epidemiologist studying residents’ health, clears dioxin of danger. “We have not heard of any proof that dioxin causes any health problems whatsoever,” he says. There has been some link discovered between health problems and herbicides.”
But the EPA’s Birnbaum says dioxin is the “most toxic man-made contaminant there is.” Still, she says, she’s not convinced of the danger it poses to humans.
“Of the TCDD prototypes (dioxins) the one that comes from 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T is probably the worst. If you took a single microgram of it and fed it to a guinea pig, the result would be death,” she says. “But if you feed 5,000 times that much to a hamster it would have no effect.” Some species have the capacity to metabolize dioxins.
Virtually all the human research done on toxicity of defoliants and dioxin has been occupationally based. Tracking health problems is vexing because tracking the workers is difficult. This has been exacerbated by dioxin’s apparent latency. In most cases, Birnbaum says, health problems don’t show up for about a decade.
The chemical industry capitalizes on these murky results to assert that neither the defoliants nor dioxin constitute a health threat.
In an official release, Dow Chemical Company admits some health problems caused by dioxin, but none related to defoliants. It cites controversial studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in 1989 and the EPA in 1990 that exonerate both contaminants of ill-effects on human health.
“These recent developments reflect an ever-increasing consensus among scientists that dioxin is not as toxic as previously assumed.”
Dow may be buying time while the EPA is conducting a study designed to settle this issue once and for all. While more tests are needed, the research hints that lung cancer could be related to defoliant exposure, thus opening a new can of worms for the chemical industry. A preliminary report also lists a few other diseases as possibly related to defoliants.
Meanwhile, it has been proven equally difficult for the chemical industry to refute charge that their compounds can kill. And if McCray’s numbers are right, Dow’s misinformation superhighway could run into a brick wall.
Globe, according to Birnbaum would be a different kind of study than most done on herbicide exposures. Globe’s relatively static population would be an ideal testing source for the effects of herbicides and dioxin.
Both McCray and McKusick say they know the truth.
“I’m more of an expert than anyone in Washington, D.C., because I live with (these defoliants). I raised a family here,” McKusick says. “I’m tired of experts telling me what I’m seeing is not happening.”
McCray has a low regard for the epidemiologists’ credentials as disease detectives.
“If a plane crashed on you and you died, any normal person would say the plane killed you,” McCray says. “An epidemiologist would look at you and ask, ‘Well did he smoke?”
Dow’s liability might rest in any knowledge that 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D did cause health problems among workers who manufactured them. Their employees kept showing up to work in the 1950s and 1960s twitching nervously and flecked with seeping boils and rashes.
According to published reports, problems got so bad at the company’s Midland, Michigan plant that in 1967 corporate bosses decided to raze the building where the defoliants were made. The rubble was decontaminated brick-by-brick and component-by-component. Two years later Silvex was packaged and shipped off to the Globe Ranger District, billed as perfectly safe. The district’s chief ranger even published an open invitation to Globe-area residents to come and watch the spraying take place.
Meanwhile, the federal government has acted with a bizarre foreboding that it has something at stake in Globe as well:
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 mils 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 were filed. Another batch of herbicides is still missing.
In 1990, Besich contacted Congressman Kyl, who in turn asked the EPA to test Kellner and Ice House Canyons for residual Silvex and dioxin. Eighteen months later, EPA told Kyl’s office that no survey was needed because the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality had thoroughly studied the area and deemed it decontaminated.
In fact, Besich was told the state never tested Kellner Canyon. However, EPA did – as part of the 1986 National Dioxin Study. Far from labeling the site as safe, EPA found the highest dioxin concentration anywhere in America on the helipad above Globe.
Globe District Chief Ranger Larry Widener remembers this testing EPA says never happened.
“They (PA) researchers) told us they would be back to clean up the ground and we never heard from them again,” he says, adding he’s tired of the runaround.
“If there is a health problem,” he says, “I’ve got to know what the hell to do about it.”
In 1991, the Resolution Trust Corporation, the national agency charged with liquidating assets leveraged in bad loans during the S & L fiasco, acquired property in Kellner Canyon. As part of the eventual sales agreements, the RTC said the federal government, as the seller, would not be liable for pre-existing well-water contamination. This prompted Kyl’s D.C. office and a good portion of southern Gila County to inquire in harmony: “What contamination?”
With bureaucratic poetry, RTC officials responded by saying they didn’t know of any contamination but were responsible for informing the buyer of any health problems they did know about.
In 1990, McCray and McKusick hiked to the helipad to photograph warning signs that were put up in 1989. “Warning” Contaminated Area- Do not enter,” they read in English and Spanish. When McCray returned a few days later to show his son, the signs had vanished.
The Forest Service had ordered the signs removed without explanation.
“It makes it look like there’s a problem, and they don’t want anyone to think that there is a problem,” McKusick says.
Inquiries to the Forest Service and Dow Chemical, today, are mired in the generation gap. The Forest Service was stumped. Dow’s front-line lawyers hadn’t a clue. Globe, Arizona?
The city that incited rancor in the 1970s and gave both entities collective migraines today generates a collective “huh?”
I walked up and down the hall and no one knows anything about it,” says Scot Wheeler, Dow spokesman.
“Someone around here has to know something about this,” says Jill Bauermeister, the Forest Service’s national media coordinator. “But you got to realize most people around here are barely 30.”
Both vowed to find out what happened in Globe in the 1960s.
What did happen was a tragedy of errors:
In 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969 the Salt River Project contracted with the U.S. Forest Service to defoliate a 1,900-acre swath out of Tonto National Forest just above where Kellner and Icehouse creeks carve canyons that feed the Salt River. The idea was to kill desert scrub impeding water run-off so rainfall would roll cleanly over the sand into the creeks, empty into the Salt, thus swelling the river and making SRP turbines spin faster.
It was easy: load harmless chemicals into jets attached to Forest Service helicopter, release some defoliants, pack up and leave.
What could go wrong?
For three years nothing did. Then, in 1969, things went haywire before the helicopter blades even began spinning.
In essence, the “How-To” book was ignored.
In 1984, Cathy Trost’s Element of Risk told a harrowing story of the June 1969 spray.
First, Dow, which replaced Hercules Chemical Company as supplier in the project, had some evidence to believe the Silvex it had sold the Forest Service was indeed dangerous.
Second, Forest Service guidelines specified that defoliants be mixed with diesel fuel to weight down the solution and prevent drift.
Third, spraying was to stop if the wind speeds kicked up over 10 mph. But instead of diesel fuel, the Silvex was mixed with water and household detergent. Instead of splashing the defoliants on the target area, the Forest Service misted a poisonous fog over the canyon.
The Forest Service also violated the other rule of aerial application. It commenced operations on a gusty day when the winds topped 15 mph. Though flights were grounded for several hours because of wind, the damage already may have been done.
According to articles in the Arizona Record, defoliated trees were found five miles to the East of the spray and 15 miles Northwest. Suddenly the 1,900-acre, uninhabited target area became a 37.5 square-mile disaster area.
In another mishap, the helicopter lost a spray nozzle that regulated defoliant discharge. An uncontrolled gush of Silvex tracked the pilot’s route over a residential area back to the loading station. McKusick says, “They picked the wrong canyons to mess with, if they would have tried to spray us again, I would have shot them down. And I am not a violent man.”
McCray’s just angry: “Oh, they killed me, ” he says. “they can’t do anything to me anymore.”
Globe proved to be a costly embarkation for Dow. Though the settlement barely covered medical bills for a few afflicted denizens of Kellner and Ice House canyons, it served as a precedent for a Vietnam veteran’s class action suit worth $180 million against chemical companies like Dow and Hercules. Again, the corporations settled out of court without admitting liability.
Eventually, Dow and the government were able to extract themselves from the small mining town 100 miles from anywhere. But their legacy may be lingering on the canyons they sprayed.