Friday, July 13, 2012

Dying on a Hot Spot

Twelve years ago this month, my father was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.  The doctor told him he had 8 to 10 months to live.  He died 5 months later at the age of 57.

The cancer cell type my father had was from environmental exposure, not smoking.  Aside from the occasional cigar, my father was a non-smoker.  The doctor's first question to him when he was diagnosed was, "Have you ever been exposed to anything?"

I grew up in a neighborhood in Washington, DC called Spring Valley.  The name of this neighborhood used to be "Arsenic Valley" and was changed to Spring Valley when a building company bought it to build homes on the land.  After World War I, the Army buried munitions and toxic chemicals under the ground throughout this neighborhood and later homes were built on top of this contaminated land.  Hence, the name change.

My father lay on his death bed as he read this article that had just come out in the Washingtonian Magazine in December 2000, the same month my father left this earth.  The article is about the contamination, illnesses caused by it, and the cover up by the Army.  I'll never forget how after reading the article and knowing that he was dying because of his exposure to these toxins, my father punched his fist up into the air and said, "Fight for me!"

Meanwhile, a few houses away another neighbor was dying of cancer and in the two houses next to that one lived neighbors who BOTH had a very rare blood disease.  I remember a neighbor pointing to almost each house on the block saying, "That one, breast cancer, that one, another kind of cancer, that one, another..."  And this was only one block.

Right after my father died, I attended a meeting with representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA.  The Army Corps of Engineers had taken over the clean-up mission of the contaminated areas known as "Hot Spots".  There were people from the neighborhood at the meeting, but very few.  My brother, sister and I attended that first meeting together.  A neighbor from up the block who was dying of esophageal cancer was there, too.  I got a migraine headache at that meeting due to the stress of the situation.  I never went back.  It was too close to home, I could not deal with more stress at the time, and I knew there was nothing that I, as one citizen, could do to achieve justice.  I was exhausted from taking care of my father during his illness and I needed to heal.  So Dad, I initially tried to "fight for you," but in the end, all I could do was care for you in your last days the best I knew how.

The clean-up mission was projected to last into the year 2125 or longer!  It's a big job with a huge amount of contamination.  And no, there was not a mass exodus from this neighborhood after this news became public.  And you may wonder why there was not more of an uprising from the neighbors or more of them in attendance at the meetings with the Army Corps of Engineers.  The answer comes down to the same reason this scandal was covered up to begin with: money.  The residents of Spring Valley did not want to see the value of their million dollar and multi-million dollar homes go down.  It's that simple.  People wanted to remain hush-hush about it and go on with their lives and hope more people would not find out about it.  Hey, if we look the other way long enough, maybe everyone will forget it ever happened.

The clean-up continues on in a quiet kind of way.  The families who have lost their loved ones and pets grieve in a quiet kind of way.  Life goes on as if nothing had ever happened just as it does with most government cover-ups.  Hopefully one day we will live in a world where the desire for a profit does not override the honoring of the sacredness of life.       

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