story by Ryan Saylor and Michael Tilley
Editor's note: Story updated with comments from Debbie Keith and attorney Robert Jones III.
Erin Brockovich, the famous consumer advocate known for exposing and fighting back against corporate pollution, is coming to Fort Smith next week to participate in a town hall meeting related to contamination near Whirlpool’s idled Fort Smith manufacturing plant.
Brockovich’s visit was noted in an e-mail from Fort Smith City Administrator Ray Gosack to area media. According to Gosack’s e-mail, city resident Debbie Keith has worked to bring Brockovich to Fort Smith for a town hall meeting set for 6 to 9 p.m., March 26, at the Fort Smith Senior Activity Center at Cavanaugh Road and South 28th Street. (The City Wire has not been able to independently verify that Brockovich will attend the Fort Smith town hall.)
Gosack was informed of the meeting by City Director Mike Lorenz.
“I have spoken with Ms. Keith several times regarding the Whirlpool contamination issue and she called me on Friday (March 15) to let me know of the following information regarding her contact with the Brockovich Consulting firm and their upcoming visit to Fort Smith,” Lorenz noted in the e-mail. “Given the escalation of this issue in the past few weeks, it would likely be advisable that as many of the board attend this meeting as possible.”
WHIRLPOOL’S TCE CONTAMINATION
The issue that has escalated began with a request to ban groundwater wells in a neighborhood near Whirlpool’s Fort Smith plant.
The ban was requested by Whirlpool as a response to trichloroethylene (TCE) in the soil in the residential neighborhood in the area of Ingersoll Avenue to Brazil Avenue near Whirlpool’s shuttered manufacturing plant. TCE had previously been used by the company at its Fort Smith manufacturing plant in equipment degreasing operations from 1967 to 1981, according to information provided by ENVIRON International Corp.
At a Feb. 12 meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors, a lawyer and consultants representing Whirlpool said possible cancer-causing chemicals in the ground around its former Fort Smith manufacturing facility had not spread. But the Whirlpool representatives were notified by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) 20 days prior to that presentation that trichloroethylene (TCE) was not necessarily contained.
Tamara House-Knight, a senior associate and toxicologist for ENVIRON International Corp., disputes the ADEQ claim that the TCE pollution is moving. ENVIRON is the environmental firm hired by Whirlpool to collect data on the TCE pollution. ENVIRON also disputes the ADEQ suggestion that Whirlpool do more to clean up the pollution.
BOARD DELAYS REQUEST
On March 1, the Fort Smith Board of Directors agreed to remove the Whirlpool request from the agenda of a March 5 meeting and place it on the agenda of the March 27 Board meeting.
City Director Keith Lau has been the most vocal in his opposition to Whirlpool’s request.
"They left us with an abandoned manufacturing facility, took production out of the country and left us with a problem," Lau said as part of a March 1 interview with The City Wire. "I can't see the Board of Directors voting for this. If it were me, I would pull it off the agenda. It would not even be an option."
‘THEY’RE NOT GOD’
Keith said she began the process that eventually included Brockovich after being skeptical of the claims made by Whirlpool at its environmental consultants.
“I live in front of Whirlpool and I attended the neighborhood meeting and I didn't like the answers I was getting," Keith told The City Wire. "I came home and did research on my own and forwarded it on to a law firm in Chicago."
Continuing, Keith noted: "We're just a small community neighborhood. My whole family has lived here our whole lives. The fact that a company can say 32 years ago, we contaminated your property, that's just wrong. I would have never raised my kids in this house if there was a chance that they could be hurt in any way. They don't have that right. They're not God."
Robert Jones III, an attorney in Fayetteville who represents Whirlpool on the matter, said any calls about the groundwater contamination had to go through Whirlpool's media relations office, which did not return phone calls.
Keith said attempts to contact Whirlpool and Jones have proven frustrating.
"I'm very angry and I took it to Erin Brockovich. ... According to them, this happens all the time. They (big corporations) have they money, they have all the power, and nothing ever happens,” Keith said.