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Ronnie Greene

in
August, 2010

AUGUST: Ronnie Greene discusses his stories (part one, part two) about how a tiny Florida town challenged the Lockheed Martin Corporation to compensate it for the devastating pollution caused by a defunct plant.

1.) Why did you decide to look into Tallevast, Florida and its fight with Lockheed Martin over environmental contamination?

I began exploring issues in Tallevast in 2008, and the timing coincided with the publication of a book I had just completed, Night Fire: Big Oil, Poison Air, And Margie Richard's Fight To Save Her Town.

Night Fire explored how a four-street minority community in Norco, Louisiana -- not far from New Orleans -- had spent more than a decade battling chemical plants and refineries that literally towered over their neighborhood, Diamond. As Night Fire was being published, I asked experts about other cases of environmental justice in the U.S. One pointed me to Tallevast, describing the town's battle with industry and government as perhaps the most significant in the country.

I wrote a takeout about that struggle in 2008, but kept thinking back to the issues and the people. This year, I made two return reporting trips, which formed much of the basis of the Toxic Town series.

2.) What surprised you as you did your research?

Many things were surprising, but perhaps none more than the fact that the town had been polluted with a cancer-causing chemical -- but no one told the residents. Not the state, not the county, not industry. When I asked the state of Florida why, an official explained that there were no regulations on the books requiring notification. That later changed -- through a bill inspired by Tallevast's plight -- but it had come too late for the residents of this historic black hamlet.

Another surprising thing was how I kept seeing parallels to the environmental struggle in Louisiana. There, after a decade confronting Shell Oil, the Diamond residents scored a historic, long-sought relocation from big industry; Diamond homes stood just 25 feet from the fenceline of a Shell Chemical Plant. Tallevast residents have also sought relocation, but Lockheed Martin has, to date, refused -- just as Shell initially refused relocation requests in Norco. As in Louisiana, the people of Tallevast have turned to the courts in a bid for justice. And, as in Louisiana, there is palpable concern about the community's health and its connection to industry. Lockheed Martin, which owned the shuttered beryllium plant at the time of the leak's discovery, said it has capped the pollution.

But mostly, the lessons from Tallevast are told through the residents and their quest to preserve the legacy of their blue-collar town. Nearly everyone in town is related to someone else; the family trees stretch back generations. Though the town is blanketed by this underground plume, and residents are seeking relocation, many are heartbroken by the prospect of one day leaving Tallevast. When they do, the family trees will no longer sprout.

3.) What has the response been since you published it?

From the start, I've felt this was an important story to tell, hearing from all sides in the divide -- community, government, industry. The response from readers has supported that view.

On another front, Lockheed Martin and the residents this month announced a settlement, in principle, to a major contamination lawsuit that was to go to trial in October. The settlement terms are confidential, and neither side is talking. But this is a significant step, the first time the residents and the Fortune 500 company have come to terms on a major issue dividing them. What this means for other issues -- several lawsuits remain pending, as does the community's relocation request -- remains to play out.

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