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November 2000

Willits: A Most Toxic Town


Willits California has an iron arch across Highway 101 in the heart of town declaring it as the gateway to the redwoods. On the west side of the street is a yellow colored factory building that is closed down. The infamous Remco Hydraulics factory that served as an employer to a couple hundred people in Willits over a period of approximately 50 years. The jobs provided work in an area that had once depended on the lumber and fishing industries.

Willits is the home of the "Skunk" train. A railroad line that connects Willits with Fort Bragg on the ocean.

But what this story is really about is the fact that the people who owned and ran the Remco factory were extremely careless with their manufacturing chemicals and wastes. In spite of ordinary common sense that says you don't dump toxic chemicals into your creeks and water ways, it was done openly by the Remco factory.

In spite of the warning labels on certain chemicals about the hazards of cancer and other illnesses, the Remco factory-actually you have to blame the supervision -- allowed their employees to be exposed. But worse yet, they let the toxic gases and chemicals escape into the surrounding neighborhoods.

But the people in town really didn't complain. Who would listen? But after all of those years and the death of one child, it suddenly occurred to one after another of the ordinary folks of Willits that it perhaps wasn't right that their children suffered from asthma, bloody noses and too frequent bouts of illnesses. And perhaps when they started talking to one another (those ordinary folks of Willits) they began to realize that the pre-mature hysterectomies young women were being medically advised to have, the birth defects that were not being discussed before and the tumors and cancers were really not normal.

One little woman, Donna Avila, began to go door to door and talking to her neighbors. When she started realizing the extent of the diseases and sickness she started keeping track of it on her "measle map" with little colored pins. Each color had a significance and the big significance was the vast numbers of reported diseases and sicknesses.

So what about the Willits City Council? Weren't they concerned? Well, it seems they were too concerned about ruining property values if the word got out there was a serious toxic problem. Or, perhaps it was because a couple of the city council members owned property that could become part of a toxic clean up and they might be culpable.

Oh it gets worse. Mrs. Avila started touching a lot of nerves. She also started tweaking some consciousness' of some the men who used to work at Remco. They spoke of "midnight" runs to dump barrels of toxic waste up in the woods or in landfill areas. They spoke of being paid a $50 per truck load bounty to "take care of the stuff" and it wasn't until Donna started making the people in town aware of the connection between the toxic wastes and their illnesses that things began to happen.

But the bureaucracy is so strong. They have resisted taking care of the people. The people want medical monitoring and examinations but the insurance companies are holding back.

What about the four town doctors? Didn't they put two and two together and come up with any concept that perhaps there was something wrong in Willits? Well of course not! If they made any waves.

The men who worked in the factory, didn't they file Workers Comp claims? Oh no! They used their vacation and sick time to avoid any nosy bodies from seeing what was really going on.

You are going to hear a lot more about this toxic mess in Willits. If you happened to see the movie "Erin Brockovich" you will also be pleased to know that the law firm that Erin works for is taking on the Willits toxic case. It is about Hexavalent Chromium and other toxic chemicals of such a huge proportion, Willits is probably going to end up in the history books as THE worst toxic case in the history of the United States.

There will be more on this forthcoming. In the mean time, listen for the Project Censored radio documentary on National Public Radio in December called "Cancer in our Lives" Willits will be a segment of that one hour documentary.

Paul Stutrud
Correspondent, Sonoma County

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