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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Toxic Towns USA
Aired July 31, 2010 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST (voice-over): Today could be one of the most important days of her life. Dorothy Felix - her mission - simple - to save herself, but also to save her hometown Mossville, Louisiana, and as I learned after a year-long investigation, to possibly save all of us.
DOROTHY FELIX, MOSSVILLE RESIDENT: These plants are killing us.
GUPTA: You see, Dorothy is on a crusade with this one, Wilma Subra, a chemist, a bona fide genius, now with stacks of evidence almost everyone denies.
They are toxic avengers, the two of them together. Before this journey ends, they will have Washington's attention. And I promise you, they will have yours as well.
FELIX: Have those issues been addressed?
ANNOUNCER: TOXIC TOWNS USA with Dr. Sanjay Gupta begins right now.
GUPTA (on camera): This is Mossville, Louisiana. For decades, residents in this community have been trying to sound the alarm for what they say is an environmental crime happening here - chemicals in the air, the ground, the water, making people sick, killing them off one by one. And for years, they say those complaints have been falling on deaf ears. What happened to the people here could happen to any of us.
Hello. Good to see you.
GUPTA: It's a nice gulf weather we're having here.
FELIX: Oh, it's beautiful.
GUPTA: And how long has this home been in your family?
FELIX: This home has been in our family since I was a little girl.
We felt free here. We felt safe. We had love. We had community activities that brought the families together. Families did their own gardening, farming, cattle raising, all the things that we needed, we had that here. It was just a beautiful place to live.
GUPTA: That was then. Mossville is now surrounded by chemical plants.
It's sort of jarring to just like, all of a sudden, you walk in through this area with all these trees and just look over and see this plant with all the smoke and everything sort of billowing out. When you see something like that, what do you think?
FELIX: You say, well, I don't know if it's a good smoke or bad smoke.
GUPTA: Good smoke or bad smoke. I've asked myself the same question when I see a smokestack. Is that just steam, or is it something worse?
We wanted to hear directly from the companies in Mossville. So we contacted the managers at all the chemical plants nearby. None would appear on camera. Several said, let this man, Larry Deroussel, at the Lake Area Industry Alliance speak for them.
LARRY DEROUSSEL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, LAKE AREA INDUSTRY ALLIANCE: They have no ill effects on the local community. There's no connection between those health issues and the plants. And the plants have been there for many, many years.
GUPTA (voice-over): That's what Deroussel says. And I can tell you, it's a bitter pill for people here in Mossville to swallow.
GUPTA (on camera): I was really curious what the people of Mossville were experiencing on a day-to-day basis. So we put up some signs around town asking them if they wanted to talk about it and they did.
Take a look.
GUPTA: Hello, everybody. Thanks for coming. I appreciate it.
By show of hands, how many of you live within a mile of some sort of chemical plant? That's about all of you.
How many people here have had either themselves or a family member affected in some way through illness or something else because of what they believe to be chemical plants?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, I had kidney cast (ph). I had one kidney removed.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Encephalitis.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I had to begin steroids because I had bad asthma.
GUPTA: All these health problems.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have a white blood count that is dropping. Every two years, it's going down.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Both of my kidneys is gone. GUPTA: As a doctor, I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I go to dialysis three days a week.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My daughter suffered with endometriosis to the point where she had to have a total hysterectomy done. I end up having the total hysterectomy like most young women do in this area, and they really don't like to discuss it.
GUPTA: Most young women have hysterectomies.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
GUPTA: You did? And you did, too? And you - you believe it's because, again, of this pollution?
GUPTA (voice-over): Chemical detective Wilma Subra has been studying Mossville's pollution for years. She lives 100 miles down the road in New Iberia, Louisiana.
WILMA SUBRA, PRESIDENT, SUBRA COMPANY: All of those people are being heavily exposed to a large quantity of very toxic chemicals.
GUPTA (on camera): How long have you been involved with the people of Mossville?
SUBRA: Since the very early '70s, when I helped them understand what the issues were, what chemicals were being released, what form they were taking as they were released, and then looking at their health impacts.
GUPTA: You're sort of like an Erin Brockovich, like a modern day Erin Brockovich.
SUBRA: I've been doing it this way before Erin was doing it.
FELIX: We have been screaming and yelling and fighting for years about our human rights being violated and -
GUPTA (voice-over): Dorothy Felix and Wilma Subra, passion and reason. Trying to put an end to what they see as a terrifying tale in Mossville.
Take a look at these snapshots. Friends and neighbors dying young, too young, many from cancer. Down the road on a nearby bayou, Harold Arena (ph), he remembers what it used to be like.
HAROLD ARENA (ph), MOSSVILLE RESIDENT: You could live off the land because it was plenty out there to eat.
GUPTA: Arena's (ph) father rented boats to out of towners fishing in the bayou, but there was a problem, the fish started dying. And then something Harold Arena (ph) could not have predicted, his own family started getting sick.
ARENA: I had cancer, then my brother-in-law and my sister had cancer. And my other brother-in-law and sister had cancer, and my mother had cancer. And before industry came here, nobody in the family, or that we knew had ever had cancer, so -
GUPTA (on camera): So you had eight people out of 10 get cancer?
ARENA: Right here on 40 acres.
GUPTA (voice-over): Bone cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, bladder cancer. I can tell you as a doctor, the chances of that happening are incredibly rare.
DIANE PRINCE, MOSSVILLE RESIDENT: I am very angry. I'm very angry that these plants will have taken - have taken - have taken a lot of energy, my life, future life away from me. Once you have cancer, you have to understand this, once you have cancer - I'm in remission now, but once you have cancer, you live with the fear because this cancer can come back at any time. And when it - most of the time, when it comes back a second time, it's worse.
GUPTA: Diane Prince was diagnosed with ovarian cancer six years after she and her husband, David, moved the family across the street from a vinyl chloride plant in Mossville. She wasn't the only family member who got sick after moving there.
DAVID PRINCE, MOSSVILLE RESIDENT: My daughter about 14, 15 years old was diagnosed with endometriosis. My youngest son experiences extreme headaches, and my youngest daughter had extreme sinus problems.
GUPTA: On top of the health problems, there were daily aggravations.
DAVID PRINCE: Trains passing every hour, the blowing of horns, the noise from the plant. It just drove you crazy.
GUPTA: And there were smells.
DAVID PRINCE: They would say, oh, yes, we had a small release, but it didn't cross the fence line. What kind of barrier is that? It must be recent (ph) to the ionosphere some where.
GUPTA: Didn't cross the fence line. How could they possibly measure that?
DEROUSSEL: What happens is when there is an incident that occurs, the plants have personnel that they send out with monitors, at different places within the plant and within the community and some on the fence line to - to make a determination as to just how far the effect, if any, has gone. And there are minor incidences where it doesn't reach the fence line.
DAVID PRINCE: It came over, the plant - they came over with their little monitoring equipment in our home and said, oh, nothing is wrong. We don't smell anything, you know? And that was not true. That wasn't true at all. The whole family could smell it, the community, my neighbors could smell it but they couldn't smell it.
GUPTA: The Princes and their neighbors would learn about a secret, something happening right under their feet. But first, I wanted to know more. There's only so much you can see from the ground.
GUPTA (on camera): Take a look down here. What you're looking at used to be the center of a rural community. There are now 14 chemical plants down there. Many of these chemical plants came here because of the promise of no property taxes by the state. They have coal fire energy plants, petrochemical plants, chemical plants, many of them making the raw materials for plastics.
GUPTA (voice-over): In order to understand Mossville, you have to understand plastic. The first plastics plants arrived right after World War II, part of a nationwide boom. The future was plastic. "The Graduate" in 1968 captured the move.
WALTER BROOKE, ACTOR PLAYING MR. MCGUIRE: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
DUSTIN HOFFMAN, ACTOR PLAYING BENJAMIN BRADDOCK: Yes, sir.
BROOK: Are you listening?
HOFFMAN: Yes, I am.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Plastics is anything we ask it to be.
GUPTA (voice-over): Plastic has changed our lives.
The most common, polyvinyl chloride, PVC. It's everywhere - in pipes, vinyl siding, windows and other building materials. It's in cars, in shower curtain, phones, flooring, storage containers, lunchboxes and toy; in hospitals, IV bags, in tubing.
GUPTA (on camera): Most importantly, perhaps, they're also in our homes, just about everywhere you look, laptop computer, for example, that has PVC in it. Even a simple bucket like this, flip it over. You see the number 3, that means PVC. Children's toys. One clue, if they're softer and more malleable, that's a clue that PVC is in it.
Speaking of kids incidentally. What about school supplies? Pencils and pens, they often have PVC. Even a simple binder like this also has it. And these hard-to-open clamshell boxes, part of the reason they're so hard to open is because of PVC.
But in order to have all these supplies that we become so dependent on, we need to make a lot of PVC, more than 12 billion pounds a year. And that, many environmentalists say, is a problem.
ANNOUNCER: Next, an alarming leak, toilets full of poison and the campaign to keep it secret.
FELIX: I had all this in date order to the teeth.
GUPTA (voice-over): To understand why Dorothy Felix and Wilma Subra are on a crusade, you need to know what happened to the Prince family and their neighborhood in Mossville, Louisiana.
DAVID PRINCE: Let me get out of the picture because she's the cook, not me.
GUPTA: David and Diane Prince suspected that chemicals blowing over from the neighboring vinyl chloride plant were making them sick. But here's what they didn't know. There was also pollution underground. Thousands of gallons of a highly toxic chemical called EDC, ethylene dichloride seeping beneath their neighborhood.
We wanted to find someone who worked at the plant and was willing to talk. So we tracked down Ray Reynolds in Mayhill, New Mexico.
RAY REYNOLDS, FORMER CONDEA VISTA EMPLOYEE: I worked at Condea Vista and I was also chairman of the union.
GUPTA: The 52-year-old Reynolds suffers from a rare blood disorder called demyelinating toxic neuropathy. That's a condition he blames on chemical exposure. Nowadays, he says the mountain air is good for his health.
REYNOLDS: I have complete kidney failure, which means without this machine, I would have maybe two to three weeks to live. The body - I would die.
GUPTA: Reynolds travels for dialysis twice a week. When he worked at Condea Vista, Reynolds says the plant water was contaminated with EDC. That's ethylene dichloride. The chemical was heated to almost 1,000 degrees, a process called cracking to produce the vinyl chloride. EDC is a suspected carcinogen that can damage the liver, kidneys and nervous system.
We decided to investigate and got a hold of this internal document. Take a look at this. The EDC problem at the plant was so bad, this internal memo shows, the chemical dripped from the ceiling and even backed up in the toilets. Because of the contamination, workers wanted managers to warn visitors to not even wash their hands in the water.
REYNOLDS: We threatened to go to court and bring in our own union testers to test it. They wouldn't test the water, you see. So as a compromise to us, over every place that there was a water outlet, they would put, do not drink.
GUPTA: And here's the thing. That contamination wasn't just inside the plant. As these documents filed at the State of Louisiana show, plant managers knew, as far back as the early '80s, there was an underground leak of EDC. And management knew the underground plume of EDC was spreading into Mossville.
REYNOLDS: Common sense and gravity would tell you that they're getting EDC out of their wells. Of course, they had the right to know and they should have known.
GUPTA: But the company never told nearby residents, like David and Diane Prince, they might be in harm's way. In fact in this 1991 meeting agenda, there's even a hand-written note, Vista feels a public hearing is unnecessary.
REYNOLDS: If I have EDC under my property, I need to know about it. If it could possibly affect my health, I need to know about it.
GUPTA: It wasn't until December, 1995, more than a decade after the company began trying to contain the contamination, that Condea Vista notified Mossville residents.
FELIX: I considered this a vicious, very vicious act, a criminal act, where this chemical escaped and it was not reported to the public. It was just left there.
GUPTA: Sasol, which bought Condea Vista in 2001, had no comments on what happened, saying, "It would be inappropriate for us to comment on events that happened prior to our becoming the owners of the company."
Larry Deroussel of the Lake Area Industry Alliance said he couldn't talk about the chemical leak either.
DEROUSSEL: That is an incident that relates to a specific company, and, you know, I can't - I'm not in position to be able to discuss issues related to specific companies.
ALLEN BLAKEY, VINYL INSTITUTE: This is vinyl PVC pipe.
GUPTA: Allen Blakey, a spokesman for the vinyl industry says what happened was the exception, not the rule.
BLAKEY: In most instances, the communities are doing very well, living right next door to the plants and the relationships are generally good.
GUPTA: Authorities never accused Condea Vista of doing anything illegal, but the underground contamination did not go over well in Mossville.
GUPTA (on camera): You know, residents of this Mossville neighborhood were pretty upset. In fact, more than a thousand of them banded together to file a ground water contamination class action lawsuit. They won that lawsuit but something else happened here as well. Residents over here, these close-knit neighbors, they all started to scatter, fled the pollution, leaving this neighborhood nearly abandoned. And part of Mossville's history was lost for good.
DEBRA RAMIREZ, FORMER MOSSVILLE RESIDENT: I can't bring my children back here and say, this is where mama grew up at, this is where you were born, a house that I brought you home in. AND I can't do that anymore because it don't exist. You know, it just doesn't exist anymore. And I think it's unfair for them to just rob you, just like raping you of your history.
FELIX: This is a street. Homes were back there. And it's just - for me, it is just sad to know that this is barricaded like this because I saw when this was developed to a very good area. GUPTA: Is this place a toxic place forever or is it fixable?
SUBRA: Well, as you see, it's empty lots. So, the industry owns these lots and obviously have made the decision it's not fixable or they'll expand onto this land. It will never be residential again.
GUPTA (voice-over): David and Diane Prince were among the people driven from the land they loved.
DAVID PRINCE: A sight to behold to see them lift the whole house and just carry it on its way.
GUPTA: His wife, Diane, she loved that house.
DAVID PRINCE: She wanted to live in here, in this house. I think she enjoyed the high ceilings here. She just liked to sit on the porch.
GUPTA: Meanwhile, Diane's cancer had return, and it was worse than before. She died on October 6th, 2005. Diane Prince was 59 years old.
DAVID PRINCE: It would seem, anyway, they're more protective of the almighty dollar than in human health. And the community in Mossville seems like it's lost their God-given right to human health. I mean, nobody cares. Nobody cares, as long as that they are not seemingly directly affected by what they do. They don't worry about it. They're not concerned about it. It's not us. It's those poor people in Mossville. That's the attitude. That's the attitude you get.
DEROUSSEL: I can only go back to what I know. And what I know is how the plants were operated. What I know is a result of the various studies that have been provided, that have indicated that, you know, that there's no connection between those health issues and the plants.
ANNOUNCER: Next, the people of this toxic town fight back. And Wilma Subra finds what looks like the smoking gun.
GUPTA (voice-over): Dorothy Felix knew her community was suffering. In fact, not long after an underground chemical spill turned this neighborhood into a ghost town, a University of Texas researcher did a health survey in Mossville and concluded the community was very sick.
Residents were worrying about dioxin, often called the most toxic chemical known. And they convinced the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, ATSDR, to perform blood tests.
FELIX: They found that the dioxin in the blood levels of these residents that were tested had three times the elevation of people in this country. So the levels are extremely high.
GUPTA: Where were these dangerous chemicals coming from? The federal agency concluded that the source, quote, "was not known."
DAVID PRINCE: We're surrounded by 14 chemical plants in this area - 14.
GUPTA: In spite of those high blood dioxin levels, the Department of Health and Hospitals concluded no further investigation is needed.
Dorothy Felix and her friends in the local environmental group, Mossville Environmental Action Now, were outraged, and they decided to launch their own investigation. Their lead detective - Wilma Subra. Subra is a chemist who has made it her life's mission to help places likes Mossville.
SUBRA: Other than sulfur smell, what kind of smell do you have in your water?
GUPTA: Communities across the United States and around the world now ask her for help. Subra used to work for government agencies and companies, testing for toxic chemicals, but they didn't let her tell the local people what she found, and Subra didn't like that.
SUBRA: So, in 1981, I said, OK, it's time for me to do this on behalf of the communities.
GUPTA: She received the MacArthur Genius Grant for her work in 1999 and she's also gotten her share of threats.
SUBRA: Oh, I get harassed all the time.
GUPTA (on camera): You get harassed? What happens?
SUBRA: My office got broken into a large number of times. And then I had a drive-by shooting while I was in the office.
GUPTA: They wanted you dead?
SUBRA: Well, they hit it by the door and I was sitting in front of the window right next to the door. I think they were more scared to try to scare me and get me to back off.
This is where the bullet hit the brick.
GUPTA (voice-over): Subra simply moved her desk away from the window and got back to work.
SUBRA: Right now, I'm probably working on somewhere around 30 active issues.
GUPTA: In Mossville, her focus is dioxin.
GUPTA (on camera): How bad is it?
SUBRA: It's one of the most toxic substances known to man.
GUPTA: One of the most toxic substances known to man. What does that really mean? Well, first of all, dioxins are toxic in parts per trillion.
Let me give you a little bit more context. This is one drop of food coloring. This is one swimming pool. Take a look at what happens. Here's the thing. If that were dioxin, it would still be toxic, even if this were 130,000 swimming pools.
SUBRA: When the dioxin is being released on on-going basis, you keep bio-accumulating that in your body.
GUPTA (voice-over): You're going to hear a lot more about Subra's detective work in Mossville.
But first - dioxins. Now, you may know more about them than you think. Agent Orange contained dioxin. American soldiers in Vietnam used Agent Orange, an herbicide that got its name because of the orange stripes on the storage barrels. Dioxin was an unwanted impurity in the production process. The U.S. Military used the defoliant to clear away thick jungle and reveal Vietcong forces.
But Agent Orange had another effect. In the decades that followed, soldiers exposed to Agent Orange were more likely to develop a range of cancers and possibly Parkinson's disease, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
And that brings us back to Mossville. Toxicologist Richard Lipsey studied health effects of dioxins in Agent Orange for the EPA. He says dioxin levels found in the blood of Mossville residents are dangerously high. If you're wondering, Lipsey has no connection to anyone in Mossville, the residents or the companies.
RICHARD LIPSEY, FORMER EPA CONSULTANT: In Mossville, it's three times too high, which means it's being stored not only in their fat, but it's being stored in their pancreas. You're going to see a lot of diabetes. It's being stored in their liver. You're going to see liver cancer. It's being stored in their kidneys and in their brains.
So are there going to be adverse health effects? Yes.
GUPTA: But where was the dioxin coming from?
To answer that question, Wilma Subra came up with a plan right out of a police detective's handbook - look for fingerprints. You see, dioxin is not a single chemical but a family of chemicals, and each has its own chemical fingerprint.
SUBRA: It clearly makes a different fingerprint from the sources. The vinyl (ph) manufacturing facilities have high concentrations of specific ones. So you can clearly see where it's coming from.
GUPTA: In other words, she could see if the dioxins coming from the chemical plants were the same ones ending up in the people of Mossville, like David and Diane Prince. And when she made the comparison, Subra says dioxins in the blood matched those coming from five nearby chemical plants and the local power plant.
SUBRA: The highest match was Georgia Gulf.
GUPTA: In fact, the five most common dioxins in Mossville residents matched the most common dioxins coming from the Georgia Gulf plant. LIPSEY: To me, that's a smoking gun.
GUPTA: We asked Georgia Gulf about that, but they wouldn't talk to us. Instead, they left it to Allen Blakey at the Vinyl Institute.
BLAKEY: I don't know really know Wilma Subra's studies, but I don't think she's a medical doctor. I don't think she did a medical evaluation, and I'm pretty sure she did not get external peer review of her study.
GUPTA: Lipsey does do peer review for several scientific journals, so we asked him to look at Subra's report.
LIPSEY: I think the science is good. I think it's an excellent report. I thought it was very logical.
GUPTA (on camera): Can you conclusively say that there was a health impact from the stuff being released onto these people?
SUBRA: The dioxin that's released by this facility matches the fingerprint of the dioxin in their blood.
GUPTA: Did those dioxins make people sick?
SUBRA: Yes. Yes.
GUPTA: You can say it for sure?
SUBRA: Yes. Absolutely.
NARRATOR: Next, see what happens when Wilma Subra's report finally goes public. And a decade of frustration boils over for Dorothy Felix.
FELIX: These plants are killing us, and you have turned --
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Don Lemon, live in the CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta. Time for your headlines.
This is the first week the Arizonans are dealing with their new immigration law, a law that came with much consternation. A judge this weekend blocked the most controversial parts of it. Governor Jan Brewer fought back right away, but lost her bid to get a speedy appeal hearing. That's not going to happen until November.
In the Gulf of Mexico, work to permanently seal BP's crippled well has - has hit a snag. The procedure known as the static kill now wouldn't begin until Monday or Tuesday. That's when heavy drilling mud and cement will be pumped into the well from above to push the crude oil back down into the earth. But first, sediment from the tropical storm Bonnie has to be cleared out of the way. The so-called bottom kill procedure, when a relief well intercepts the well and pumps it full of cement, is expected to begin by the end of August.
A catastrophe is unfolding in Pakistan where flooding has killed at least 800 people. That death toll also is expected to rise. The U.N. says nearly a million people have been affected by the flood.
Rain has washed away thousands of acres of crops. Aid groups are rushing in to help victims of the flooding, but more monsoon rain could be on the way by Monday.
Those are your headlines this hour. I'm Don Lemon. "TOXIC AMERICA" continues right now.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's all I need.
FELIX: This is a very exciting day for our community. We are extremely thrilled about being able to host such a wonderful event.
GUPTA (voice-over): It was at a Mossville health fair last summer, when finally a decade of frustration boiled over for Dorothy Felix. It happened during a presentation by the EPA.
FELIX: And the people of Mossville has turned to you because you are supposed to protect the people - the human beings of this - this environment. You have not. Your agencies have not done one thing. These plants are killing us, and you have turned a deaf eye, that you don't know what's going on.
GUPTA: EPA regional director, Samuel Coleman, promised the agency would investigate potential health hazards, to a point.
SAMUEL COLEMAN, EPA REGIONAL DIRECTOR: What we will not do is to come in and say you are -- your health is directly injured because of this. That's not what we do. So we're not going to say that your health is impacted. We'll say -
GUPTA: Even more alarming to Felix and others in Mossville, the EPA concluded Subra was wrong when she said the dioxins could be traced to Georgia Gulf. The report said these same types of dioxins are typically found in people living throughout the United States.
COLEMAN: We were just not able to agree with the findings that - that she presented.
LIPSEY: Federal agencies are very slow to say, folks in Mossville, you got a problem, because if they do, they've got to do something about that problem.
GUPTA: So who is supposed to do something about all this? What about the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry? Remember, ATSDR? They did the blood tests, the ones that found the high dioxin levels.
In 1998, they hired Chicago doctor, Peter Orris, as a dioxin expert, who advised them on Mossville. His advice, polluters should help pay for health care.
DR. PETER ORRIS, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT CHICAGO: I thought the local industry, since they knew they were putting these chemicals into the environment, should extend the health insurance that they had for their workers to the local community.
GUPTA: ATSDR ignored the advice, and the head of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals called Orris, quote, "an outsider," with, quote, "unscientific opinions."
ORRIS: I was surprised by his response, I must say.
SUBRA: It's really tough to have to go back to Mossville over and over again, to meet with the agencies over and over again, and see no progress.
FELIX: We expected ATSDR, when they started with us, to come out and work with us. But no, ATSDR has dropped the ball on us and has done nothing. So he needs to come back to Mossville and finish his job.
DR. HOWARD FRUMKIN, FORMER DIRECTOR ATSDR: And part of the problem is setting these lines in the sand as if there's a clear distinction between safe and unsafe.
GUPTA: He is Dr. Howard Frumkin, head of ATSDR, when I met up with him.
FRUMKIN: I think every American should expect to breath clean air and to drink clean water and to eat clean food.
GUPTA (on camera): Based on that, did the agency, this agency or any other agency, failed the people in Mossville then?
FRUMKIN: I think that, as an overall system, with all of the agencies, all of the companies, all of the stakeholders who were involved, we probably haven't done as much as we could.
GUPTA: They say agent - the agency has to finish the job.
FRUMKIN: You know, this is a question about the tools and the toolbox. What our agency can do and has done, and we're continuing now, is scientifically characterize the exposures, take a look at the health impacts. But our toolbox doesn't include solutions like relocation.
GUPTA (voice-over): So EPA says it doesn't deal with individuals who might be sickened by pollution, and ATSDR says even if it finds people sickened by industry, they can't do much either.
Dorothy Felix still isn't giving up. FELIX: That's why I intend to stay with this fight so that my granddaughter, if she chooses to live here in this community, will have a safe place to live, a safe environment.
GUPTA: Here's what Felix and others specifically want - that residents who want to leave should be relocated, and those who do stay should get free health care from the government or industry.
FRUMKIN: It may be that, going forward, we need to be thinking about the locations of industrial facilities and the locations of where people live and keeping a healthy distance between them.
GUPTA (on camera): Are we going to find out, 40, 50 years from now, that some of the things that we thought were safe are in fact a lot more dangerous than we thought?
FRUMKIN: We may well. We need to be reminded of that.
GUPTA: That's very scary. I mean, because you hear so much dogma coming from folks at the Environmental Protection Agency. This is fine. Don't worry about it. It's safe. But then as science changes, it may not be, as with lead.
FRUMKIN: As time goes on, naturally, we get better and better at appreciating the effects of chemicals at low levels of exposure, and that's led us to lower the acceptable levels of many chemicals, including lead.
GUPTA: You can't prove the cause and effect relationship here. That's, you know, as much as hard as you might try, that's - that the problem. You can't prove the effect.
SUBRA: You can trace the chemical as it comes across into the community. You can detect it in the community where the people live, and it correlates to the health impacts.
NARRATOR: Next, the investigation heats up, and Dr. Gupta takes his questions straight to the top, to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That every time they would have a release, they would say, oh, it didn't cross the fence line. They had some magical vacuum, I guess.
GUPTA (voice-over): In Mossville, Dorothy Felix, David Prince and local environmentalists try to rally support.
LAURA BARRY, INTERFAITH CENTER ON CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY: This is a group of religious institutional investors who used their role as shareholders to encourage corporations to change behaviors that are unjust, that cause trouble for folks that create public health concerns. And Mossville is a center of the universe around some of the issues of corporate irresponsibility.
GUPTA: And that's what I heard as well, at a meeting with people who call this place home.
CHRISTINE BENNETT, MOSSVILLE RESIDENT: They're not going to build in a rich neighborhood because a rich neighborhood will get them out before they even get started. If you just look around, most of the minority community is where they build these plants. And they don't care. Life is nothing to them. It's all about that dollar.
DEROUSSEL: The plants are very responsive to the community. They are - they are just environmentally responsible, very conscientious about being a good neighbor.
GUPTA: Spokesman Larry DeRoussel and Louisiana state official say industry is not making people in Mossville sick. DeRoussel sent us these stack of reports, including one from the state which says the cancer rate in Calcasieu Parish where Mossville is located is no worse than Louisiana as a whole. They also got a federal report saying dioxin levels in people's blood in Calcasieu Parish are similar to a nearby parish.
DEROUSSEL: In each one of their reports, says that, you know, there are no health-related issues related to the industry in this area and the emissions that are reported.
GUPTA: Subra says the study don't mean much because they look at the whole county and don't focus just on Mossville. Part of the problem is this, after nearly two decades of research, the EPA has not set an official limit for airborne dioxins in Mossville or anywhere else for that matter.
LISA JACKSON, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: I do feel that I have a tremendous responsibility.
GUPTA: Not long after she took office, I met up with EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson.
GUPTA (on camera): There's been 18 years of studies out there on dioxin. Does it cause cancer?
JACKSON: Well, EPA needs to speak to that, right? And you don't want me to do it because I'm not an MD like you. And I'm not - I'm an engineer by training. But what we owe the American people is a final risk assessment for dioxin.
GUPTA (voice-over): Since then, the EPA did announce standards for dioxin in the soil, but still nothing on airborne dioxin. The agency now promises a draft assessment by the end of 2010.
Some companies aren't waiting. Computer giant, Hewlett-Packard, Kaiser Permanente, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Nike, Ford, Apple, all of them using less polyvinyl chloride. That's right. No PVC in the new iPad, less manufacturing, and in the long term, less PVC waste to burn. All in all, it could mean less dioxin in the environment.
Back in Mossville, the plants are still making millions of pounds of vinyl chloride every year. Wilma Subra says chemical industry lobbyists in Louisiana have talked state lawmakers out of passing any dioxin standards.
GUPTA (on camera): I mean, how can this happen?
SUBRA: Because their permit levels don't set a dioxin limit.
GUPTA: That sounds kind of - I mean, like some - someone is not doing their job. I mean, you're convinced that it's so toxic and -
GUPTA: -- I heard that. What am I missing here? Why - why hasn't some of this been done? We're talking about human health here.
SUBRA: If we go to the state legislature and try and get adoption of dioxin standards, the industry is going to be there day in and day out, making sure we do not succeed.
ANNOUNCER: But don't think she's giving up. Next, a showdown in the state capital.
FELIX: And this is really unfair.
ANNOUNCER: As Wilma Subra and Dorothy Felix try to get this fixed once and for all.
GUPTA (voice-over): I asked Wilma Subra and Dorothy Felix to meet me in Baton Rouge, the state capital.
FELIX: It has not been done.
GUPTA: As I looked for answers on what the state was doing to protect the people of Mossville.
GUPTA (on camera): How receptive, Wilma, have people been to your concerns?
SUBRA: At the capital, the legislators, the senators and the representatives, absolutely no concern. No, don't want to hear it.
GUPTA: They wouldn't even listen to you?
SUBRA: They wouldn't even listen to me. Because when they listen to me, then they know I'm going to ask them to introduce legislation that would like reduce the concentrations of dioxin being released into the air and into the water. GUPTA (voice-over): We wanted to see the governor. I had tried calling several times. He was always too busy to talk.
GUPTA (on camera): We're trying to see if we can get on Governor Jindal's schedule.
GUPTA (voice-over): So I thought I'd try and catch him here in his office.
GUPTA (on camera): Well, this has been all about trying to find the answers, trying to really get to the bottom of some of these issues. We've made repeated attempts to try and get in touch with the governor of Louisiana to talk about some of these issues and we have been repeatedly turned down.
We made an appointment here at the Department of Health and Hospitals in Louisiana. We flew to Baton Rouge, had a scheduled appointment. At the last moment, they literally canceled on us.
GUPTA (voice-over): At the Department of Environmental Quality, another roadblock.
GUPTA (on camera): What we've heard so far is they wouldn't let you guys in the meeting. Does that surprise you?
SUBRA: Yes, today, that surprises me. Twenty years ago, no. But today, yes. I mean, what are they fearful of?
FELIX: We just keep coming back. This is not the last time we will be here. We're coming back again, so they might as well get ready for and accept us now.
And all we want to do is let them know that Mossville is still suffering. There are people there that are still dying.
GUPTA: Let's give them a call maybe and - and see if I can help trying to get you into the meeting there. I'm literally calling into that building right now. I was just calling you on the phone.
RODNEY MALLETT, LOUISIANA DEPT. OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY: Good, good.
GUPTA: We were - we're excited to come meet with you.
MALLETT: And we're glad you did.
GUPTA: We're hoping to bring Wilma and Dorothy in as well.
MALLETT: We can't do that.
GUPTA: Why not?
MALLETTT: Because if we don't - if we open it up to others who are interested, then it would have to be opened up to industry folks as well and they would probably want to have their lawyers represented as well. And we haven't set that up. And we have - you know, our scientists who want to provide you information in an interview type of atmosphere.
GUPTA: What if they just listen? What if they don't say anything?
MALLETT: No, it wouldn't be appropriate.
FELIX: We have come from Mossville to here, to just sit in a room and you wouldn't allow that?
MALLETT: We really try to be as open and fair and honest as any state agency can be. And if you don't feel like you're getting the proper treatment, I'm sorry. And if it's going be, you know, where now you don't want to interview us on the topic, then that's just going to be the case.
GUPTA: You know, we definitely want to talk. And I think this is all about trying to get as many answers as possible.
MALLETT: I agree.
GUPTA (voice-over): Answers. Like whether Mossville's high blood dioxin levels were making people sick.
TOM HARRIS, LOUISIANA DEPT. OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY: These blood levels would not result in any clinical health effects.
GUPTA (on camera): When they say that around Mossville, 10,000 pounds of vinyl chloride, 112,000 pounds of benzene, EDC, 29,000 pounds a year, I mean, should people be worried about that sort of thing?
HARRIS: What we've seen in the Mossville community, concentrations in air and soil and drinking water are well, well below levels of concern.
GUPTA (voice-over): Try telling that to Dorothy Felix and Wilma Subra. They're plenty concerned.
The state government may have tuned them out, but they now have the federal government's ear. This winter, after CNN began reporting on Mossville, the Environmental Protection Agency said, for the first time, it would test to see if Mossville qualifies as a super fund site, as one of America's most toxic towns. That could mean money for cleanup and maybe relocation. Testing began in April.
FELIX: This is a very important day. It's - it's a day that should have come a long time ago. And we have traveled a long journey, and I feel like victory is close.
GUPTA: Not all of Mossville's crusaders have lived to see these victories. Now we'll never know for sure whether living in Mossville made David Prince sick. During the filming of this documentary, he died after a fire in his home.
LIPSEY: Would I live in Mossville? Personally, if I had a choice, no. You wouldn't either. You're going to want to live in a safe environment, free of elevated levels of any human carcinogen. BLAKEY: I would not be concerned living in a plant community because I know a lot about the regulations and about the industry's commitment to compliance with these regulations. I would feel safe and protected living there.
FELIX: If I got a fair price to get out, I would leave.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you doing today?
FELIX: Oh, I'm doing pretty good.
When I think about it and think how hard my grandparents worked for this piece of property and how they prayed for it and hoped for it and cried for it and labored for it, it would be sad to just say, I'm gone.
If I decided to leave, every one in my family would have to agree to it. I would leave no one, because we were here together and we leave together, if we have to.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I would eat it all, and me -
GUPTA: In real life, there are few perfect endings, few cut and dried conclusions. One thing I have learned during this year-long investigation, to some extent, we are all living on the fence line. All of us, like the people of Mossville, we are potentially exposed to dangerous chemicals.