Triana Fish Story
By Thomas Noland
Vol. 1, No. 8, 1979, pp. 14-15
Shortly after noon, trucks pulling two fishing boats with 55-horsepower inboard engines turn into the driveway at Triana Fire Station Number 1. Four Black men climb out, carrying buckets of fresh carp, catfish and buffalo fish caught that morning in the nearby Tennessee River. Several more men walk over from city hall. Everyone gravitates to the two stone tables under a shady tree, and the men from city hail begin slowly, methodically cleaning the fish, slicing wet and tender meat from bones and wrapping the patties in paper. By 4:00 p.m., the women of the village pull up in their cars, pass by the fishing boats that say “Town of Triana”, and collect some fish to bring home to supper.
Nobody rings up a cash register, or signs a receipt. For the 1,000 residents of this Black, lowincome community just south of Huntsville, the fish is free.
It’s been that way for the past six weeks, ever since the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta announced the results of tests of DDT taken in February of 12 Triana residents. To everyone’s dismay, the tests showed levels of the banned pesticide and its related compounds to be from five to 250 times the national average in these residents. With additional testing expected to start soon, the angry, confused and frightened residents of an obscure town in North Alabama will make medical history by providing the first massive data on the effects of longterm exposure to DDT in human beings.
As the CDC prepares to set up its testing clinic, Triana residents who supplemented their meager incomes on fish pulled from Indian Creek, a Tennessee River tributary, depend now on the daily fishing expeditions by city employees in the two “Town of Triana” boats. Those boatsand a cache of fishing gear-were donated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Each day they are taken to a portion of the river that the authority has shown not to contain DDT-contaminated fish, and they bring back a haul that is safe to eat.
Why the Indian Creek fish are not safe to eat goes hack to 1947, when a company called Calabama Corporation set up a DDT manufacturing plant on the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. No one suspected the enironmental dangers of DDT at the time. First sold commercially in 1946, it was hailed as a “wonder-killer” that, among other things, wiped out an epidemic of typhus-carrying lice among American servicemen in Naples in 1943. Calabama sold to Olin Chemical in 1954 and that plant continued to churn out the powdery white pesticide.
All of that changed in 1962. Arthur Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” outlined an environmental disaster that had already begun to occur because of the unrestricted use of DDT. Perhaps her strongest and best-documented evidence had to do with the chemical’s tendency to soften the eggshells of contaminated female birds. In 1970, under threat of an environmental lawsuit, the Olin plant shut down, and shortly thereafter DDT was taken off the market.
But in the meantime, the Olin plant had deposited an estimated 4,050 tons of DDT sediment along a two-mile stretch of the Huntsville Spring Branch, which feeds Indian Creek. The sediment seeped into the water and collected in the fatty tissues of the fish Triana residents were eating.
In December of last year, TVA announced the results of a survey of fish taken all along the Tennessee. Bass at Triana showed DDT levels as high as 260 parts per million; catfish exhibited 411 parts per million. When those figures are set against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration standard of 5 parts per million as the maximum for safe human consumption, it’s no wonder Triana citizens were outraged.
And when the results of CDC’s February blood test survey were announced in March-showing that all 12
Triana residents tested had DDT and DDE (the chemical built into the highest level of the body after eating DDTcontaminated food) levels significantly above the national average-the outrage became a concerted call for action.
The day the results were announced, Triana Mayor Clyde Foster charged state and federal agencies of having been aware of the excessive DDT levels in Triana fish for years, but of refusing to release the information in an effort to use his constituents as “guinea pigs” to test the pesticide’s effects on people. He was especially outraged to learn that the average DDE level among 12 tested447 parts per billion-was in the same range as that found in workers who spent their careers in DDT plants.
“Somebody is going to have to be responsible,” Foster was quoted as saying, “even if it means having to go to President garter himself.”
The agency least willing to take responsibility-at least at the outlet-was the Army. Shortly after the TVA fish study war announced in December, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered the Army to come up with a plan to clean up the sediment along Huntsville Spring Branch. But Army officials argued that since the sediment lies just outside Redstone, in the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, it is not responsible for it-even though the sediment was created by a firm (Olin) which had a lease arrangement with the Army Corps of Engineers to operate the DDT plant. Now, in concert with the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army has agreed to go ahead with a study to find “a permanent solution” to the problem, although not to determine legal responsibility for it. That study is expected to take several months.
In the meantime, Triana residents are not the only ones to suffer fallout from the controversy. A number of commercial fishermen in the Triana area-mostly Whitepractically have been wiped out by retailers’ fear of buying fish caught anywhere near Triana.
Bobby James, president of the Whitesburg Commercial Fishing Association, had to throw away more than 12,000 pounds of fish, worth $9,000, in March. His group is upset because TVA provided Triana with fishing boats, and the Army donated an old building to set up a fish market in the village, but the commercial fishermen got nothing.
James hints they may sue the Army or both. “A lot of people are thinking we want a pension or some kind of handout,” he told The Huntsville Times. “We don’t want a handout. We don’t need to learn how to fish. We have more fish than we can sell. We want to be reimbursed.”
Although commercial fishing is virtually at a standstill, the Alabama Department of Public Health still permits it on Indian Creek and the Huntsville Spring Branch. There has been no ban, according to the department’s Dr. Thomas J. Chester, because “A warning would be sufficient. Closing the stream only gives you enforcement problems.”
That warning, and all of its attendant publicity, has made life a little slower in Triana. Police Chief Joe Fletcher says no one comes to the banks of Indian Creek anymore unless he lives in Triana or has come to write about its troubles. Residents are apprehensive about the upcoming CDC tests which researchers hope will show, among other things, whether the human body continues to build up deposits of the non-biodegradable pesticide, or whether it begins secreting DDT after the substance reaches a critical level.
Like Foster, Fletcher believes the Army knew of the problem about the time “Silent Spring” came out.”They knew it was there,” he says, staring at the CDC’s report to him of his own DDT levels. “They should have come down and told us about it in 1964, when we were incorporated. They didn’t say anything then and we didn’t get the word until another source (TVA) told us.”
As for what further tests will show, Fletcher’s comments are ominous. “We don’t even know how you act when you got it,” he says, “but if it’s in you, it must be affecting you some kind of way.”
Thomas Noland is a staff writer for the Anniston Star.