Peter von Stackelberg, who we introduced in a news story last week, told a packed room at Gonzaga's Law school Thursday night how for the last 40 years he and a group of environmental activists have fought to make sure people know what chemical companies and government regulatory agencies have been up to, and how little public health has been prioritized.
First, in many cases, companies have known their chemicals were poisonous and harmful to people and the environment for decades, likely causing cancers, reproductive harm and more. Second, they came up with strategies for how to continue profiting from those chemicals despite knowing they were harmful. And third, von Stackelberg is sure to point out that government agencies also met with companies to figure out how to prevent the disruption of the industry, despite health concerns.
"So they're trying to figure out a strategy to deal with basically a meltdown of the regulatory system, but in a way that the public wouldn’t be worried. 'We don't want to alarm people,'" von Stackelberg said to the rows of people. "You know, people tend to get kind of hysterical, according to the industry, when they find out they’re being poisoned."
His interest started when, as a young journalist at a daily paper in Regina, Saskatchewan, he learned about a list of more than 100 chemicals that had been called into question after it was discovered Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories had been found to have major issues with its practices and studies.
Criminal charges were eventually filed in that case, but there were dozens of other labs he'd learned about with similarly questionable practices and nothing seemed to happen to them.
One of the stories he shared was about something he found in documents about those labs. Investigators who were auditing the validity of a study explained the so-called "Titanic Defense," in which an investigator actually, seriously claimed he'd taken every single one of the documents about a particular study out on a sunny day on a rowboat with him. Unfortunately, this investigator explained to the investigators, all of the documents had fallen into the water and been ruined when the boat tipped over.
Much of the evidence von Stackelberg has helped post online at poisonpapers.org was collected by Carol Van Strum through discovery in her own legal fights against Agent Orange being sprayed in Oregon in the 1970s.
For many years, the documents were stored in a barn on Van Strum's property. Recently, the two, with the help of others who've worked on various other records requests and reporting on chemicals, scanned the more than 100,000 pages of documents so they'd be preserved. Some had already been water damaged, while others were starting to break down with age and exposure to the elements.
"There was an owl that lived in that barn and we called it the guardian of the documents," von Stackelberg said to a few laughs from the audience.
Jerry White, the Spokane Riverkeeper, also spoke at the event, which was largely focused on PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. White explained how he and his staff work to preserve the health of the river and went into a quick explanation of PCB contamination in the Spokane River.
Even though their manufacture was banned in the '70s, White explained, PCBs can still be inadvertently made in manufacturing processes, especially in the process of making pigments and dyes. Things like yellow road paint and even sidewalk chalk may contain PCBs, which can runoff with rain into the river.
Rick Eichstaedt, a Gonzaga law professor and director of the Environmental Law and Land Use Clinic, spoke about the city of Spokane and state of Washington's lawsuits against Monsanto, as they try to recover money for cleanup costs of the legacy of pollution.
Discovery in the city's case is set to go through spring 2019, and there's a trial date set for July, but Eichstaedt said he wouldn't be surprised if that date slides to a later time.
While there are more than 100,000 pages contained in the Poison Papers, von Stackelberg says maybe 100 or fewer of those came from leaked sources. One of the examples he knows came from a leaker had to do with the dangers of dioxin contamination coming from paper mills.
"Corporations are people too, right? I'm gonna take Mitt Romney at face value there, and say we need to have a death penalty for corporations," Peter von Stackelberg says.
"Ever had bacon and put it on a paper towel to get the grease off?" he asked the audience. "That's a great way to suck the dioxins out, they’re fat soluble. So you can pick up your dioxins in a variety of ways."
While industry leaders say they have changed their practices in light of contamination concerns, von Stackelberg says he's skeptical.
Looking forward, he told the room, largely made up of law students, there were some things the next generation could do to address the issues he raised.
First, regulatory agencies could be rebuilt.
"Trump has set a forest fire through the regulatory agencies," von Stackelberg said, noting that people in the Pacific Northwest know too well how wildfires behave. "They're terrifying, but that destruction can lead to regrowth and rebirth and we need to be prepared to go into the burnt-over fields if you will, of our society, and grow something new."
Secondly, he believes corporations must be held accountable. If he were to shoot a gun into a crowd of one million people and kill one person, he'd be charged with murder. But that's considered an acceptable risk for chemicals, von Stackelberg said.
"Corporations are people too, right? I'm gonna take Mitt Romney at face value there, and say we need to have a death penalty for corporations," von Stackelberg said, to applause from many in the crowd. "We need to be able to execute corporations by taking away their charters, seizing all their assets, and killing them dead, if they’re killing others."