It was the first day of the fall term. Mrs. Lucille Davis had already handed out the spelling assignments, but the children were restless. The heat in the classroom was stifling. Even on the shaded porch of the little schoolhouse, in Garrison, Montana, the thermometer registered 98 degrees.
As her third-graders fretfully turned to their books, Mrs. Davis glanced through the open doorway. For a moment she sat as if transfixed, her eyes wide in disbelief. Springing out of her chair, she hurried across the room, slammed shut the door and windows, and alerted the teacher in the next classroom. Then she stared in horror across the broad valley at the newly erected plant of the Rocky Mountain Phosphate Company.
From the plant’s steel chimney, huge pillars of smoke shot skyward, then whirled to earth in a vast black pall. Within seconds the sun was obliterated, the valley enshrouded, and the sinister fog was creeping uphill toward the schoolhouse. Mrs. Davis drew the blinds and turned on the lights. “The spelling lesson will continue,” she told the children quietly.
But soon it was hopeless.
Seeping through the windowsills, the floorboards, the ventilators – even the keyholes – the sulfur- and fluoride-laden smoke began to fill the schoolhouse. The children had their heads in their arms. They tied handkerchiefs over their faces. They tried to take refuge under their desks. Nothing availed. As the morning wore on and Mrs. Davis vainly tried to comfort the children, the acrid smoke grew denser. It seared the children’s eyes and throats, made their tongues crack and bleed, left them choking and gasping. Some staggered around the room. Others sat dazed and motionless.
It was not until late afternoon that a breeze sprang up, lifting the black pall enough so that the children could grope their way home. Peering through the gloom, the towheaded grandson of a rancher pointed at the roaring smokestack in the distance. “You think it’ll do that until it makes us all die?” he asked Mrs. Davis.
This was the opening onslaught in what became one of the most disastrous sieges of air pollution ever to beleaguer an American community. Before it was over, it had engulfed an area of more than fifty square miles. It had disrupted lives, broken up homes and imperiled the health of nearly three hundred men, women and children who lived or worked in and around Garrison. It blighted the economy, poisoned and killed cattle, and made a surrealistic nightmare of the landscape.
The smoke and fog literally threatened to destroy Garrison. But its citizens fought back with every legal weapon at their command. Thwarted by judicial roadblocks, hamstrung by medical uncertainty and betrayed by political maneuvering, the seemingly hopeless battle dragged on for four years.
Ultimately, it was the housewives of the Garrison area who spearheaded the final, winning round in the battle. Crisscrossing the country, they spoke before community groups, cornered politicians, and gathered hundreds of signatures on petitions which sought Federal intervention. Confronted by these, county commissioners – the only ones legally empowered to initiate an appeal to the government under the Clean Air Act – were finally forced to act.
Though few in number, the citizens of Garrison, from the first, acted almost as one. What they accomplished demonstrates the power of community forces working together vigorously to seek reform. How they accomplished it can at least provide inspiration to citizens of other air-polluted urban centers across the country. One small community’s battle, and its precedent-making triumph, can serve as an example for the nation.
The community’s struggle for survival began within a few hours after the black pall had first descended, in September, 1963. Summoned by rancher Ed Mollenberg and his attractive wife, Isabelle, 200 residents of the Garrison area met for a council of war in the schoolhouse gymnasium. As they took their seats, Mollenberg could sense the hostility of some of his neighbors. He knew the reason: it was he who, five months earlier, had sold the fifty-four acres on which the phosphate company had erected its plant. But this very afternoon, before calling the meeting, Mollenberg had gone over to the plant and offered to buy the property back – at a substantial loss to himself. “They laughed at me,” he recounted grimly.
“You shouldn’t have sold to them in the first place!” someone in the audience shouted.
Mollenberg nodded guiltily. He had thought he’d known what he was doing: the phosphate company had formerly occupied a rented plant in Butte, where its smoke and smog had created a public scandal. And at first he and Isabelle had refused to sell the firm a site in Garrison. But county officials had persuaded them that it was their civic duty – that the plant would be an economic boon. Moreover, the Mollenbergs had been assured that there would be no air pollution; that the plant would have the finest safety equipment in the country.
“Ed Mollenberg made an honest mistake,” rancher Andrew Beck told the assembled men and women. “So let’s quit blaming him – and do something to end this mess.”
Doing what Butte had done was impossible. There, the community had ousted the phosphate company by persuading the plant owners to refuse to renew the firm’s lease. But in Garrison, the company itself owned the plant.
“We have two public officials who should be concerned with our problem – but there’s no sense in talking to them,” exclaimed Mrs. Dene Wimberly, clerk of the school board. The audience angrily agreed. For Mrs. Wimberly was referring to Dr. Gordon Anderson and Martin McCalman. Dr. Anderson, the county health officer, was a member of Rocky Mountain Phosphate’s board of directors. And, quite as ironically, McCalman, the county attorney, was the company’s chief counsel. Montana’s laws did not forbid such conflicts of interest.
Nor did the state have any laws against air pollution, the assemblage was reminded by Warren Welch, Garrison’s fire chief and deputy sheriff of Powell County. “But there are laws against being a public nuisance,” he pointed out. Cheered by this disclosure, the men and women present pledged $12,000 for a court fight – contributing $1,600 on the spot – and agreed to engage. Alfred F. Dougherty, a prominent attorney from Helena, the state capital, sixty miles away.
Dougherty knew Garrison – a prosperous community of ranchers, loggers and mining contractors, located in the picturesque mile-high valley in west-central Montana. In the spring, the nearby Little Blackfoot River served as a mecca for trout fisherman. And in the summer, Garrison’s mountain air attracted scores of tourists, particularly those suffering from respiratory ailments.
Dougherty promptly filed nuisance and injunction suits against Rocky Mountain Phosphate. As if in reply, the plant stepped up its operations. Demand had increased for its product – a cattle-feed additive, which it produced by using sulfuric acid to roast the fluorides out of phosphoric rock. But the plant had not installed anti-pollution devices, as management ultimately admitted at a government hearing. And night and day, for the next several months, smoke poured from the plant’s metal stack. Even the shifting winds brought no escape. It only shifted the density of the pall; for the plant stood in the center of town, with Garrison’s widely spaced homes fanning out in a mile-wide circle around it.
By the time the injunction and nuisance suits came up for a hearing the following March, some of Garrison’s worst fears were beginning to be realized. Tests by the state health department, to whom the community had appealed, revealed that the sulfur dioxide and hydrogen fluoride emissions from the plant’s smokestacks were between 2,000 and 5,000 times beyond safe human levels. But the health department could do little, because of the absence of an anti-pollution law, unless the then governor, Tim Babcock, acted. Appeals to the governor had brought only conciliatory words.
The judge who presided at the trial in Deer Lodge, the county seat, reserved decision and ordered the formation of a committee which could demand temporary shutdown of the phosphate plant when conditions in Garrison became “intolerable.” He also empowered Mrs. Davis to make such demands independently when the fumes interfered “unreasonably” with schoolwork.
The committee included the rancher Ed Knopp, Sheriff Welch, and Ray Mackey, the plant foreman. “But our decision had to be unanimous,” recalls Welch. “And with the plant foreman on the committee, that rarely happened.”
“Rarely, too,” says Mrs. Davis, “did the plant heed my pleas to curtail the smoke.”
Standing only 300 yards from the spewing smokestack, the school, that autumn and winter, bore the brunt of the assault. Classes were disrupted on thirty-five separate occasions. “We were literally trapped,” says Mrs. Davis, “not only by smoke, but by state regulations. If classes were dismissed, state funds for the school would be slashed. So we were forced to make the children stay, while we watched their suffering.”
The report by Dr. John S. Anderson, chief of Montana’s State Board of Health, was ominous. Not only were the plant’s sulfur dioxide fumes traumatic to eyes, lungs and skin, he declared, but they could also prove fatal to persons suffering from emphysema or bronchitis. “At the very least,” he said, “such persons could become respiratory cripples for life.” The fluoride content of the smoke was equally dangerous. Fluoride causes a buildup of bone in the body, and excessive amounts might result in strange deformities.
Apprehension in Garrison mounted. And with it, frustration – as the community’s court action against the plant limped along on a seeming journey to nowhere. Eight hearings were held, including several initiated by the state health department. On three occasions the plant was ordered to close by the court. But, each time, it was allowed to reopen several days later, on its repeated claim that it had installed the safety equipment ordered by the court. The plant was expected to police itself.
Nevertheless, the pollution continued. And just before Christmas of 1964 the health department charged the plant management with contempt of court. By now a new judge was hearing the case. He threw out not only the contempt charge, but also the charge that the plant was a health menace. Thereupon Garrison launched two new court battles. These also failed. And as the months went by, Garrison continued to live a nightmarish existence. During this interlude the plant changed its process, and again stepped up its output. The new process reduced the sulfur fumes. But it doubled the fluoride gases pouring from the smokestack. Now the pall it spread was gray and dust-laden, with an acrid odor like that of burned rubber.
Practically no family was immune to the torment. Among the worst sufferers were Edward Layman and his wife, who operate a real estate development and trailer court a quarter of a mile from the phosphate plant. “We used to go to bed with wet towels on our faces,” says Mrs. Layman. “But often the fumes became so unbearable that we’d rush out of the house in our bathrobes and drive off to Deer Lodge nine miles away.”
If it was not too late, the Laymans and their daughters, Barbara, then thirteen, and Margaret, fourteen, would take refuge in the home of a relative. Otherwise they’d park on a side street and try to sleep in the car. “Usually we had too much company,” Mrs. Layman recalls wryly. “There were about forty-five families, with eighty children, who rented homes from us at the time. And they’d generally show up in their cars along with several dozen other families running away from Garrison. Mostly we’d sit around shivering, wondering if the smoke had lifted enough so that it was safe to go home.”
Quite as often, however, the Laymans could not run away. Like so many other Garrison residents, they were chronically ill. What Dr. Anderson, the state health chief, had feared was becoming more widespread. Not only were skin and respiratory ailments rife, but persons who had never been ill in their lives were developing strange symptoms akin to emphysema, bronchial pneumonia and heart disease. Most alarming to young mothers was the peril to their babies. Several were born suffering from asthma. Others were stricken shortly after birth. Many were also afflicted with such severe skin rashes that they could not be bathed but merely swathed in oily dressings.
The community lived in an unending state of apprehension. “And the emotional problems were as serious as the physical,” says Dr. Anderson. The constant pall of smoke caused quarrels and dissension among friends and within families. The tension often communicated itself to the children, who were left bewildered and disturbed. A number of families became estranged. Several more moved away, including twenty-eight families who had rented homes from the Laymans. The outside world began to quarantine Garrison, too. Fisherman shunned the nearby Little Blackfoot River as if it were the River Styx. Hardly a patron entered the large restaurant operated by Sheriff Welch’s family at the busy intersection of three state highways. And the community no longer rang with the gaiety of graduate students from Montana, Utah and Colorado engineering colleges. Preceeding groups had chosen to live in Garrison while taking on-the-job training at the outlying copper mines. Now they refused to live anywhere near the area.
Adding to the tension was a further setback in Garrison’s battle to end the smoke and fumes. In response to the community’s pleas, several members of the legislature had begun agitation for a statewide anti-pollution law. They were supported by members of the Western Montana Medical Society, who warned that chemical smoke and smog could cause not only a whole spectrum of respiratory diseases, but also lung cancer. As a result, then Governor Babcock had appointed a committee to make an overall study of the state’s pollution problem.
The governor was an avowed foe of any measure that might discourage Montana’s industrialization. And the report of his hand-picked committee echoed this sentiment. It counseled a “cautious approach” to laws requiring installation of air pollution equipment, declaring, “such devices were expensive, ofttimes without public benefit, and may harm industry unnecessarily.” Moreover, the report concluded blandly, there was no serious air pollution in Montana – merely some smoke nuisance “in the mountainous valleys.” And here, they said, citizens could apply for relief under existing laws, just as Garrison had done.
To Garrison’s irate citizens this sounded like a calculated irony. There was no relief. In fact, conditions abruptly worsened in the summer of 1965. To handle its stepped-up production the plant installed a second kiln. And instead of using native phosphate – which had been the original excuse for locating in Garrison – the plant switched to Florida phosphate, noted for its high fluoride content.
The chemical action of the fumes ate the brass off doorknobs, ruined the aluminum siding of houses and caused windows to become scarred and opaque. Not even pots and pans behind closed cupboards were spared.
Again it was the housewives and young children who bore the greatest hardship. Most of the men – ranchers, mine contractors, loggers – worked outside of town and thus were away most of the day. So were the older children, who went to the consolidated school in Deer Lodge. But youngsters below the sixth grade were trapped in Garrison. And their mothers with them.
Typical was the plight of Joan Mollenberg, wife of Ed Mollenberg’s son, John. She and her two children, Richard, then seven, and five-month-old Debra, were often unable to leave their trailer home for days at a time. “The smoke was so dense,” she says, “that it made the road invisible. I didn’t dare drive, or go shopping, even though the ranch hands depended on me for their meals. All I could serve them was homemade bread and coffee. And sometimes they just went hungry.”
To add to her distress, Joan’s young son was ill with bronchitis and her baby was losing weight. “Periodically,” she says, “I’d run off with the children to my mother’s home in Galen, twenty-five miles away. The children always felt better there. But not I. My conscience would nag. So I’d come running back hoping things had changed.”
The dust was omnipresent. As the phosphate plant continued to spew smoke that summer and autumn, alarming changes began to manifest themselves in the landscape. First to notice them was Mrs. Ernest Vincent. Her prize gladioli wilted and turned black. Then her rosebushes died. Slowly the blight spread through town, killing every garden in its path.
The it moved outward to the lush meadows and the hills. The grass withered. The hills turned bare and brown. The trees died. The song of the meadowlark – Montana’s immemorial song of summer – was suddenly stilled. The rabbits and other small animals were gone. Only the deer remained, because they could not run. Some could not even walk.
And neither could the cattle on the nearby Mollenberg ranch.
For Ed and his wife, Isabelle, this was the final blow. Only a few months before they had lost their $20,000-a-year dairy business. Unaccountably, the milk from their prize herd had developed a curious, granulated texture. Tests by state agencies revealed nothing. But the University of Colorado had finally solved the mystery. The milk was being calcified by the fluoride-laden smoke. But it was “probably safe” for human consumption, the Mollenbergs were assured. All they had to do was strain the milk. “Forget it,” the dubious Isabelle told her husband. “We hurt people enough when we sold the phosphate company a plant site. Let’s not hurt them any more.” The Mollenbergs sold the dairy at a loss and discharged the ranch hands. Their son went to work in a sawmill. Isabelle found a job in a Deer Lodge bank. And her husband labored at raising the remaining beef cattle.
But now the blight had afflicted these cattle too. Some lay in the pasture, barely able to move. Others limped and staggered on swollen legs, or painfully sank down and tried to graze on their knees. Most pathetic were the spindly calves, their eyes staring out of huge, misshapen heads. The damage to rangeland, pasture and cattle extended over a fifteen-mile area. Several ranchers tried to sell their holdings. They could find no buyers. A number of others sought loans to replenish their livestock. Every bank turned them down. Nor would any stockyard purchase their cattle. News of the affliction had spread.
Meanwhile the experts Mollenberg had hurriedly summoned, at his own expense, confirmed what he suspected. Dr. Clarence C. Gordon, internationally known plant pathologist, found that the fluorides in the polluted air had killed the trees and gardens, and saturated the grasslands. The poisoned grass had infected the cattle. And tests by Dr. William F. Harris, noted West Coast veterinarian, diagnosed their strange malady as fluorine toxicosis. Ingested day after day, the excessive fluoride had caused tooth and bone disease in the cattle, so that they could not tolerate the anguish of standing or walking. Even eating or drinking was an agony. Their ultimate fate was dehydration, starvation – and death.
The disclosure fanned new apprehension in Garrison’s residents. Could what had afflicted the cattle be afflicting people, in various sinister guises? Particularly terrified were pregnant women, and those who had recently given birth. Could the fluorides cause genetic malformations in human beings?
Yet, from Garrison’s agony sprang new hope. In rejecting the town’s every plea to permanently shut down the plant, the courts had consistently ruled there was no legal proof of menace to health or property. But now the proof was at hand. Joining with six other ranch owners, the Mollenbergs filed a $450,000 damage suit against Rocky Mountain Phosphate Company, charging destruction of timber and cattle and asking a permanent injunction.
The case came to trial in the spring of 1966. And the climax was swift. Adroitly cross-examined by attorney Alfred F. Dougherty (who was aided by attorney Karl R. Karlberg of Missoula), company president Bryce Rhodes admitted that air pollution from his plant had destroyed ranch property. The judge ordered the jury to return a verdict favoring the plaintiffs. The jury did so, awarding the ranchers $123,000, plus $10,000 in punitive damages. Whereupon the judge congratulated the jury – and denied the ranchers’ request for an injunction to close the plant. The jury’s decision was sufficient punishment, he declared.
Seeming victory had turned to defeat. Outraged and bewildered by the paradoxical ruling, Garrison’s citizens bombarded the then Governor Babcock, with renewed pleas for aid in their pollution fight. He ignored them – just as he had ignored the state legislature a few months before by vetoing a bipartisan anti-pollution bill. Then suddenly a startling disclosure was made. Lookouts had spotted trucks bearing the name of Babcock & Lee – the governor’s trucking firm – making cargo calls by night at the phosphate plant.
Coming as it did in the midst of Babcock’s U.S. Senate race against incumbent Lee Metcalf, the news caused a political uproar. A caustic letter published in a Helena newspaper speculated that the profit motive had entered into the governor’s pollution-bill veto. The governor denied this, proclaiming in full-page advertisements that he had no control over trucks bearing his firm’s name. But the revelation marked the end of his senatorial ambitions. He was overwhelmingly defeated by Metcalf – who had campaigned almost exclusively on the pollution issue.
Obliquely, Garrison had elected a senator, and returning to Washington, Metcalf worked in the community’s behalf. He was joined by Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana and State Senator Elmer Flynn, who had introduced the air-pollution bill vetoed by Babcock. Reporting to Garrison’s citizens, Flynn revealed that their ordeal of smoke and smog had been branded “the worst in the nation” at the National Air Pollution Conference in the capital. But now, for the first time, there was real hope. Under the November, 1967, amendment to the Clean Air Act, the Federal government could intervene. But only under these conditions: Garrison citizens could not request the intervention. The request had to be made by the county commissioners. Then it had to be approved by the legislature and signed by the governor.
Ironically, the commissioners were the very same who had persuaded Mollenberg to sell the phosphate company the plant site. And the governor was still Babcock, whose senatorial hopes Garrison had so recently blasted – and whose campaign theme had been the “encroachment of Big Government.”
This was the point at which the undismayed citizens of Garrison – especially the housewives – launched their all-out drive. Faced with the hundreds of signatures the women had gathered, the commissioners yielded and drew up the formal request. The legislature quickly passed the supporting resolution. And then Governor Babcock, without a word, signed it.
In quick response, scientists from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare converged on Garrison. After a four-month investigation, hearings got under way in August, 1967, in the courthouse at Deer Lodge. they marked the first time that the Federal government had acted to solve a single community’s air pollution problem. Unanimously, the accusing fingers pointed at Garrison’s phosphate plant. With charts and graphs, samples of soil and air – even the bleached bones of cattle – the scientists drew a grim picture of the smokestack’s ravages. And one by one, barely concealing their despair, Garrison’s citizens told of the disaster to their lives. The climax came when Ed Mollenberg, in a voice choked with emotion, cried out; “May God – and the people of Montana – forgive me for the mistake I made in selling my land to such an industry!”
The phosphate company capitulated. Faced with the ultimate threat of a Federal injunction, officials signed an iron-clad agreement designed forever to end Garrison’s poisonous smoke and smog. Under its terms, the plant would cease operations until it had installed pollution-control equipment that would remove 99.9 percent of the fluorides. The Montana Board of Health was to be the sole judge of the equipment’s efficiency. And the board, without notice, could permanently close the plant if the equipment ceased to function, or any terms of the agreement were violated. Conceding that “this will kill or cure us,” the company immediately engaged the renowned Dr. Aaron Teller, dean of New York’s Cooper Union Engineering School, to design the equipment.
But the fate of the plant still remains in doubt. Permitted to reopen on a trial basis with emergency equipment, the plant was ordered closed again last spring when the equipment failed. Subsequently, problems of financing and installation delayed use of the permanent air-pollution devices designed by Dr. Teller. And, as a final roadblock, ranchers renewed their battle for an injunction.
Today, the gray pall of smoke and dust that once threatened to obliterate Garrison is gone. The surrounding hills are less bleak; the trees less bare. And regardless of the destiny of the plant, the majority of Garrison’s citizens are secure in the knowledge that their peril has passed. They feel no exultation in their triumph. The wounds they suffered have caused lasting pain. But the citizens go about their daily lives with a quiet sense of pride.
They know that the victory of Garrison – The Town that Refused to Die – has become the symbol of renewed hope to many other American communities fighting for their lives against polluted air. For shortly after Garrison’s victory, Congress passed a bill further strengthening the government’s power to help such beleaguered communities. It was with Garrison in mind, the town’s citizens believe, that Lyndon B. Johnson, as President, declared, in signing the bill: “Let our children say, when they look back on this day, that it was here a nation awoke. It was there that America turned away from damnation, and found salvation in reclaiming God’s blessing of fresh air and clean sky.”