Sunday, May 26, 2013

On Memorial Day: Monsanto's Unpaid Debt to US Veterans

 New Years Eve 2010, and the body of John P. Wheeler is found in a dump in Delaware. The cause of death is ruled a homicide. Wheeler was returning from Washington, D.C. His family didn't know precisely why, or when to expect him to return.
Who is Wheeler? A respected Army Officer and Vietnam Veteran who served as the guiding force and Chair of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund from 1979 - 1989. Not only was that the time period during which "The Wall" was being planned and was the height of the Agent Orange Trial.

Turn back the Clock:
By the mid 1980s, a class-action suit launched by Vietnam Vets against Monsanto, Dow, Diamond Shamrock, and a few smaller chemical companies had hit the federal court system. All these companies were involved in producing Agent Orange, a defoliating agent designed to strip the jungle of vegetation. In the process, the breakdown of the constituent chemicals of the substance (Di- and Trichlorophenoxyacetic Acid, otherwise known as 2,4 D and 2,4,5 T for short) created Dioxin. Vietnam Vets exposed to the substance suffered everything from severe skin rashes (chloracne) to cancer and death...and their children experienced a range of horrible birth defects.

John "Jack" Wheeler was instrumental in demanding medical treatment for, and focusing attention on, Veterans health issues - especially those affected by Agent Orange.

I know. I worked for Dean, Falanga & Rose, one of the law firms that represented the Veterans at the time. My job involved reading through the deposition of Monsanto officials...and tracing how much the company officials actually knew about the poison they were selling. And how much the government knew about the poison they were buying and dumping on American soldiers. It was Ugly.

Specifically, my job was to read through the depositions that had been taken of Monsanto executives and employees, to try and create a ‘chain’ of information: precisely who in the company knew what, and when did they know it, and who did they tell and when?  In creating this chain of information, I was handling sensitive material – and required to sign a life-long gag order that I would never reveal the contents of what I found.

Too bad.  Here goes.

In 1948, there was an explosion in Monsanto’s herbicide factory in Wheeling, West Virginia.  Workers there were exposed to the herbicide that came to be known later as “Agent Orange” (due to the fact that it was shipped to Vietnam in Orange color-coded drums). 

Monsanto followed up on the health effects on their workers, and quickly discovered both short-term and long-term effects.  The short-term effects included horrible skin conditions (known as chloracne) and open, weeping sores and skin cancers.  The long-term effects included deformities to internal organs, not only among the workers exposed, but even worse among the children they fathered in subsequent years. That didn’t stop them from producing the herbicide, or from selling it for killing weeds along railroad tracks around the United States (one of its most common applications).

When the Vietnam War escalated, Monsanto – along with Dow, Diamond Shamrock, and some smaller companies – supplied the military with Agent Orange, promising that it would be an effective substance to spray on the jungle canopy.  By defoliating the jungle, they argued, soldier’s lives would be saved because the Viet Cong would be unable to hide beneath the thick vegetation.

The only problem, of course, was the nagging possibility that someone might find out about the toxic effect the substance has on human beings.

During the early “discovery phases” of the trial, Monsanto needed to find an out, or else be responsible for billions of dollars of damages visited upon soldiers and their families as the defoliant rained down from the sky on them.  So early in this phase, Monsanto invited  supposed “rival” chemical companies Dow and Diamond Shamrock (who also produced the substance) to strategy sessions to find a way to avoid taking  responsibility for the damages they caused.  In what can only be described as brazen arrogance that they were above the law, they actually took minutes of these meetings.

I read these minutes.

Under US law, if the US Government knew that Agent Orange was dangerous when they bought it, then Monsanto was off the hook. But Monsanto never informed the Pentagon of the dangers.
Instead, they created an almost foolproof defense:  they sought to show that “someone,” “somewhere” (anywhere) in the federal government knew it was dangerous, and would then use that information to claim that they were off the hook.

They discovered that in a laboratory in Virginia, the United States Department of Agriculture became aware that mice grew small tumors and produced deformed offspring when exposed to Agent Orange.

And on that, they hung their entire defense:  they argued that because a federal government lab technician in the Department of Agriculture knew there was potential danger, that they did not have to reveal to the Department of Defense that such dangers existed; they argued that the federal Government already ‘knew’ of the danger when they bought it, and they, therefore, were off the hook.
Anyone who knows anything about bureaucracy knows that rarely do people in the same office share information; trading information across agencies (such as from Agriculture to Defense) is unheard of.

On that disgustingly insincere shred of defense, the attorneys representing the veterans – who received 1/3 of any settlement monies -  folded their hands and threw in their cards.  They accepted an out of court settlement whereby veterans received pennies for the dollars of their damages.

In rage, I quit the law firm that day and never returned to the profession. I started driving a tractor trailer.

Back to Jack Wheeler.

As the years rolled on,  Jack Wheeler would go on to serve multiple Presidential administrations. At one point, he authored a document on the US Military's use of Biochemical weapons, including Agent Orange.  The document concluded that the US must never employ these substances, and explained their history. At the time, the US Army was in the process of  releasing a stockpiled arsenal full of the stuff in Arkansas. Massive bird kills and fish kills had raised the attention of the public and the press.
Sometime after Dec 28, 2010, after meeting with officials in Washington, Jack Wheeler left Washington DC on a train for his home in Delaware. He never got home. The experienced Army officer was ambushed, killed, and his body later found dumped in a landfill.

Memorial Day, Indeed . .  .

Thursday, May 23, 2013

5 New England Driving Habits That Drive Me Crazy....

I will admit from the start: I am a born-and-bred New Yorker, and that means a certain smugness flows through my veins when I observe the quaint habits of my New England neighbors.  But if there is one condition sure to bring out my exasperation with these folks is when I am forced to drive among them  For a guy who learned to navigate the avenues and side streets of Manhattan and Long Island in a tractor trailer, the inability of New Englanders to make a turn or understand traffic patterns is, well…infuriating.

And so, my top five beefs with clueless New England drivers:
1) New Englanders have no clue how to make a left turn at a light. This is my number #1 complaint.  It really needs to be taught in driving school up here.

More often than not, I am stuck behind some driver who, when seeking to make a left turn, sits way back behind the corner, behind the ‘white line,’ so as to watch the light turn from red, to green, and back to red again, without ever having moved an inch.  Such people bring traffic flow to a screeching halt – not just for those seeking to turn, but for anyone who would seek to proceed straight ahead by getting around them. 

When making a left turn at a light, motorists should NOT wait back behind the crosswalk; they should ENTER THE INTERSECTION and wait “under” an overhead light.  When oncoming traffic is clear, you make your turn.  Such an approach means that left-turning traffic will not wait interminably, making turns one car at a time.  It also increases the chance that those behind you who wish to pass and go straight will have the room to maneuver to do so.

OK, so maybe I’m given to road rage, but its all I can do to keep from jumping out of the car and knocking on these idiots’ windows to explain the process of making a left-hand turn.

2) Speed Limits take years of study to understand in New England. Having lived in exile up here for 23 years, I have finally broken the code. With a little time, you, too, can figure out the System:

 Connecticut: take the Posted Speed Limit, and add 25 mph to this.

Vermont: take the Posted Speed Limit, and subtract 15 mph from this.

Massachusetts: If on a two-lane highway, subtract 10 mph from the limit.  As soon as it opens up permitting you to pass the slow-poke in front of you, expect them to go at Speed Limit Plus 15 mph.  This ensures that no one ever gets out of line and Order is Maintained.

Rhode Island: My experience is that Rhode Island is so small that I can usually pass through it from one end to the other in less time than it takes me to pass a Masshole on a two-lane (see above).

New Hampshire: Posted Speed Limits represent an overreach of Big Government, and should be ignored. Do what makes sense.

Maine: Speed is posted in Knots and most travel is via nautical miles, so all bets are off on your standard speedometer.

3) Courtesy is Discourteous...and dangerous.

In a public show of smug self-righteousness, New Englanders prefer to show the world how civilized they are by slamming on their brakes at every available opportunity.

When it comes to pedestrians, New Englanders will stop for a pedestrian entering a crosswalk. Actually, they also stop when the pedestrian merely glances across the street or takes a step on the sidewalk within 20 feet of a potential crosswalk.  They will remain stopped until the pedestrian has crossed, stepped up on the curb, sauntered down the sidewalk, entered a storefront, and paid for their purchases…because it’s the ‘courteous’ thing to do.

A variation on this habit is the effort to overturn all traffic engineering plans by waving-in traffic exiting from side streets and parking lots to bring 4-lane highway traffic to a screeching stop.

No one explained to these Ultra-Courtesy Nuts that the timing of traffic signals is designed and tested by engineers in an effort to insure that the main (“primary arterial”) traffic actually flows smoothly, since this affects the majority of motorists.  Minor (“secondary”) side street traffic is *supposed* to wait to enter the main flow of traffic.   But New Englanders, who pride themselves on personal education and believe their ideas are as valid as the engineers, prefer to thwart planning.  They halt traffic on the main through-routes to wave in cars exiting from minor locations.  Such activity serves to effectively screw-up blocks, nay, miles of through-street traffic, and sets the stage for domino-effect rear-end accidents.  But hey, at least its courteous.

4)  Trajectories are an unknown concept.  In spite of the presence of Harvard, Yale, and MIT, all those pesky math problems that ask, “what happens when Car A is heading east at 30 mph and Car B is heading north at 55 mph…” have fallen on deaf ears.

In New York, one makes a snap judgment by observing the direction and speed with which other traffic is proceeding.  Vehicles traveling at cross-paths do NOT need to stop or even slow down when they judge that they can safely continue at their respective speeds; or, if continuing will result in a collision, then slight adjustments to speed are made so that one vehicle passes behind the other.

Not so in New England. 

A “Yield” sign in a Traffic Circle is re-imagined to mean, “Come to a Dead Stop if someone is approaching and is still a football field away.”  There seems to be a brain-fart when it comes to understanding that two vehicles (or a vehicle and a bicycle, or a vehicle and a pedestrian) actually CAN proceed at cross-paths, and simply adjust speeds to avoid collision.  No, in New England, one must come to a DEAD STOP (and then look at you as if you did something wrong).

5) Turn Signals – After the above, this is pretty minor, but common enough to warrant comment.

 Either use them like you’re supposed to, or don’t…but please, don’t adopt this strange New England habit of flipping on your turn signal only after you’ve started the turn. You're not giving us information we don't have just be watching you slide out of the lane.  For some reason, like some mindless religious ritual, drivers here do a quick flip-of-the-signal not because they are giving drivers around them warning – but simply to be able to say that they ‘did what they were supposed to do.’

Why bother at that point?


Maybe this is why, more and more, I see myself riding trains and piloting a boat.