Choccolocco Creek in Anniston Alabama is known for its easy whitewater rafting, one of the world’s first hydroelectric dams, and a local resident who donned a cow skull and scared the hell out of passersby on nearby roads. It’s less known for being a toxic waterway that turned fish into mutants.

In 1993, a local fisherman caught a severely deformed largemouth bass from Choccolocco Creek, and the truth finally burst into view: For more than 30 years, Monsanto—the world’s largest biotech corporation—had been slowly and consciously poisoning the people of Anniston, Alabama.

From the ’40s to ’70s, Monsanto knowingly dumped millions of pounds of the now-banned industrial chemical polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the town’s landfill and creek. PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals and humans, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a frequently fatal form of cancer.

Some employees suspected danger as early as the 1950s, yet company management did nothing in response to their concerns. In 1966, Monsanto managers discovered that fish submerged in the Choccolocco turned belly-up within 10 seconds, spurting blood and shedding skin as if dunked into boiling water. They told no one.

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Three years later, they found fish in another nearby creek with 7,500 times the legal PCB levels. However, they concluded that there was no point in “going to expensive extremes in limiting discharges.” In 1975, yet another company study found that PCBs caused tumors in rats. Managers ordered the report’s conclusion changed from “slightly tumorigenic” to “does not appear to be carcinogenic.”

In 2003, Monsanto finally confessed and agreed to pay $700 million to more than 20,000 residents in the first civil suit of its kind. Thousands of pages of Monsanto documents—many marked “CONFIDENTIAL: Read and Destroy”—proved that, for decades, the corporate giant concealed what it did and what it knew.

“This is a classic case of corporate abuse as well as a violation of public trust,” says Jay Feldman, executive director of the health and environmental group Beyond Pesticides. “Even as the signs piled up of its dangers and adverse effects, the company continued to ignore the warnings.”

While Monsanto employees kept this dirty secret, the residents of Anniston had no idea how prevalent this pollutant chemical was becoming in their daily lives. For years, they drank and swam in toxic ponds, cultivated vegetables from chemically saturated soil, and even ate the tainted soil, a practice known as pica.

For instance, Shannon Jeffries, a former resident of Anniston, only found about the poison water lawsuit after her husband asked why so many people in her family were deformed or had died of cancer.

“It didn’t seem odd for me to know many people with various forms of cancer,” Jeffries said. “I didn’t make the connection about this aunt or this uncle having this weird disease, or this person having this funky eye condition. I was innocent I guess, sheltered, scared to ask. Who knows?”

Jeffries herself was born with a severe form of scoliosis that led to excruciating pain and surgeries throughout her youth and adulthood. While still in utero in the late ’60s, her mother spent the better part of her pregnancy with her belly submerged in the same creek where tons of toxic chemicals were being dumped.

Even though PCBs have now been banned, it’s clear that they have long-term impacts on our health.

“There’s a range of adverse impacts that run the gamut of both chronic and acute health effects,” Feldman adds. “The concern historically has been that it’s an organic pollutant and carcinogen in both animals and humans. The company should have known this was harmful, and I believe they did.”

According to Feldman, Monsanto isn’t alone in this. From his experience, there is almost always collusion between government and corporations where companies hide behind laws of government regulation and scientific debate.

Monsanto, the same company that brought us Agent Orange and DDT, stopped making PCBs in 1977, two years before a nationwide ban took effect. Today, however, they are the leaders in manufacturing genetically modified organisms, claiming that this technology will reduce soil erosion and pesticide use, decrease our dependency on fossil fuels, slow climate change, and other grandiose positive effects on the environment .

But instead, Feldman says, the opposite is happening, and Monsanto continues to do nothing about it.

“All of the promises we have been made with this technology have really failed us,” he adds. “All of their assumptions are wrong.”

Currently, 70 percent of foods grown in the United States contain genetically modified ingredients, but there is no way for consumers to know because businesses are not required to identify them on the label.

Hopefully we don’t have to wait for the day that people start turning belly-up, spurting blood, and shedding skin to get the answers we deserve.

Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.

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  • Rae0587

    Yet another case of big corps. taking over America and destroying our health in the meantime. Thank you so much Homey Colony for keeping us informed!

  • dcnetwrkg1

    When I was 15, I got GANGRENE from a cut that I had gotten from swimming in Chocolocco Creek!!!! I spent a month in the hospital and nearly lost my leg. To this day I have a football sized scar on my right thigh.

  • Agonistes

    this would be a very good article, but as almost a life-long resident of anniston, i resent the implication that dirt-eating is a symptom of mental disorder (pica). ‘sour dirt’ is a obscure, but wider-practiced southern ‘delicacy’ and it is not limited to annistonians, or people who suffer from an actual pica.

  • donnatori

    One of many ways Monsanto is poisoning people and the planet, and getting away with it! Why haven’t they gone bankrupt by now, with all the lawsuits and fines against them?

    • duggo

      super fund site we pay for it

  • bishop2694

    I have to say this article may have “facts” but 7,500 times the legal limit? That’s called radioactive idiot. And for the blood spurting after 10 seconds, use some common sense. Finally, for the ignorance in thinly Choccolocco creek have you gangrene. Seriously our probably dirty! I’ve been fishing this creek for 6 years, every day during the summer and have never gotten gangrene.

    • Elizabeth N Franklin

      IT is a well known fact in anniston that you do not fish in choccolocco creek, unless it is catch and release because it is seriously dirty. It also reeks from chemicals. The poster stated that they had been swimming in the water which is much different than fishing. I moved about 5 years ago and a lot of my family is still in anniston. That creek is nasty – and yes you could get serious infections from swimming in it. I believe that the 10 seconds is stretching it but I do know of what that water will do to fish and it ain’t pretty. This company needs to be belly up. The deliberately limited the lawsuits to prevent a lot of the people affected from being able to collect. If you did not file a claim and get tested by a certain time then you get nothing. If you were say a minor in state custody, the state would have you tested and say that any funds collected would go to your medical care and then as soon as you were adult they gave not a single cent.

  • BTeboe

    I was stationed at Fort McClellan in the early 1970’s. I am now in my 60’s and I continue to get sicker and sicker. I have an autoimmune disorder that is slowly taking me down. Every woman that I have spoken to (and I want to be clear about this) who were also stationed there have autoimmune disorders as well. And I’ve read about others both male and female who were stationed there that also have all kinds of problems. The old US Army Chemical school was at Fort McClellan as well as WAC Basic training. Monsanto was finally forced to settle with the city of Anniston. But the US Army has swept this under the rug and refuses to even acknowledge the damage these chemicals have done.

  • duggo

    The spurlin boy came from Birminham to test the water, before the lawsuits ever started, I thought it was tar balls from the plants around and the tape craft facility’s dump. He didn’t make it home, died in a freak car accident that day going back to the Birmingham office which didn’t wouldn’t test the waters again until a year later as all the streams Crick’s and ditches were cleaned out.

  • Joey Ledbetter

    Donald Stewart and other lawyers (soulless crooks) need to be investigated and put in prison. We seriously need someone with compassion to step in and take a close look at this travesty. The lawyers walk away with half of the 700 million. I don’t believe there was ever a meeting held where are the claimants agreed to let the lawyers have so much money and my understanding is that in any class action lawsuit that is part of the process. My mother had 2.4% in her blood and received a mere $10,000. She lived a few blocks from the plant during her childhood. She lost her husband, a veteran, in 1998 after battling cancer twice he died of a stroke. Now they are taking away our Medical Care and medication which was part of our settlement and I don’t understand how they can get away with that. I am 51 years old and very concerned that I have cancer. I have been having symptoms over the last decade that did not go away like I had prayed. Instead they have slowly gotten more and more painful and I have discovered several lumps and tumors in various parts of my body. Monsanto should be sued into bankruptcy and all of us that have been hurt seriously or even given a death sentence should receive six-figure settlements. Monsanto has billions of dollars and it has all been made by lying and intimidating in order to get their products on the shelves and in our food. Please, someone help us….. let’s all come together and use numbers to overcome the corruption and greed.