A self-absorbed—but also absorbing—account of how the military-industrial complex visited death on a Southern backwater.
Anniston, Ala., was conceived as a kind of model community blending industry, commerce and culture, with amenities such as a Shakespeare troupe and good libraries serving a solidly middle-class populace. That is the city Sacramento-based journalist Love affectionately recalls, a summery place of soda pop and hot rods and ’60s-era innocence, a place in which, as a budding journalist, he was someone of importance. Alas, times change, and Love heads west—we learn all the details, all the failures and triumphs—while people begin dying in Anniston in ever-greater numbers, and the federal government, “in an unprecedented decision, distributed gas masks en masse to the mostly low-income residents within the ‘red zone’ ” surrounding a massive incinerator. The city’s business leaders had long taken pride in the lucrative manufacture and storage of chemical weapons at the Anniston Army Depot; when the subject of the incinerator stacks’ odd smells arose, the popular response was, “Smells like money, don’t it?” In fact, the rotten-egg smell was the smell of chemical death, and ordinary citizens began to feel differently as long-hidden notes passed between the Army, Monsanto and scientists surfaced, revealing that fish died in local streams as if eaten by battery acid and documenting that two million pounds of PCBs “had [been] dumped in Anniston’s water and soil for some forty years.” Love’s life story is bound up in these events more than necessary, and the book is overlong as a result. Some of this narrator-as-hero stance can be chalked up to leisurely Southern storytelling. The flow improves, though, when Love turns to the prize: a flurry of lawsuits ending in a decision against the polluters and requiring payment of $100 million to afflicted families.
The legal back-and-forth would have benefited from John Grisham–like treatment. Love’s story suffices, though, and it’s one that environmental activists in particular will want to study.