Velsicol Chemical vs. Rachel Carson — the lawsuit that didn’t happen

August 23, 2010

Decades later, the site of Velsicol's DDT manufacturing at St. Louis, Michigan, along the Pine River, remains a still-recovering-from-contamination site.  Velsicol denied DDT is dangerous in a letter to the publisher of Silent Spring. In 1999 EPA began a $100 million Superfund clean-up of Velsicol's site. Even with new, better cleanup methods, it's still a hazard.  Photo from Penny Park, by the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force

Decades later, the site of Velsicol’s DDT manufacturing at St. Louis, Michigan, along the Pine River, remains a still-recovering-from-contamination site. Velsicol denied DDT is dangerous in a letter to the publisher of Silent Spring. In 1999 EPA began a $100 million Superfund clean-up of Velsicol’s site. Even with new, better cleanup methods, it’s still a hazard. Photo from Penny Park, by the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force

This story by Linda Gittleman deserves circulation well outside central Michigan, where it was published in the Morning Sun:

LINDA GITTLEMAN: Telling stories of the St. Louis Superfund sites

Published: Sunday, August 22, 2010

When it comes to the St. Louis area Superfund sites, there must be a thousand sidebars – those quirky little stories that all played a role in what happened at the Velsicol Chemical plant, in the city and indeed the country throughout the last several decades.

And, I suspect, there are a thousand more yet to come out.

Several years ago, the PBS series “American Experience” showcased Rachel Carson, the woman who wrote “Silent Spring,” published in 1962. That was the book which became the force that led to the ban, for the most part, of DDT use in the U.S.

Velsicol in St. Louis was the largest manufacturer of DDT in the country.

In the program, Carson recalled the bad old days.

To say the chemical company didn’t much care for her is an understatement. They flat out called her a liar.

Not only was she up to no good with her “sinister influence.” She was also a “tool of the Communist menace.”

Nor did they care much for the New Yorker magazine, which published excerpts from her book shortly before publication. At least the same could be said for her publisher Houghton Mifflin.

Alma College Professor Ed Lorenz had traveled to Yale and perused Carson’s papers that are kept there.

He found a five-page letter written to the publisher from Velsicol’s lawyer outlining in great detail all the discrepancies, misstatements and misunderstandings on Carson’s part as well as the inaccuracies found in the New Yorker series.

Letter from Velsicol Chemical to publisher of Silent Spring

Letter from Velsicol Chemical to publisher of Silent Spring, threatening to sue if alleged errors in Silent Spring were not corrected. No changes were made, and Velsicol did not sue. Letter image from the archives of Alma College.

Certainly wouldn’t want to see all those errors in the book due out, so a letter from Velsicol was in order. A letter that would “call several matters to your attention from legal and ethical standpoints.”

Louis McLean, the attorney, requested a meeting with the publisher so they could discuss all that and more besides.

The editor in chief wrote back and thanked him for the letter, forwarding on a copy to Carson.

“We have reviewed carefully the sources for the statements in her book, in the light of the points you bring up in your letter,” Paul Brooks wrote in response. “While there may be room for differences of opinion, we still believe, after thorough examination, that Miss Carson’s presentation is accurate and fair. Since our concern as well as yours is factual accuracy, we do not believe that a meeting would serve any useful purpose.”

Velsicol didn’t sue.

E.B. White, then the publisher of the New Yorker wrote to Carson, remarking on her courage for, “putting on the gloves and going in with this formidable opponent. This will be an Uncle Tom’s Cabin of a book, I feel – the sort that will help turn the tide.”

It did, at least in the U.S.

And one last item for the “It’s a small world department:” Did you know that the mother of Bernie Davis, the former Alma College professor and former county commissioner, was Carson’s administrative assistant?

She too was interviewed on “American Experience,” Lorenz said.

(Linda Gittleman is the Gratiot Managing Editor and can be reached at lgittleman@michigannewspapers.com.)

America is vexed with a non-centrally organized, but persistent, campaign to smear Rachel Carson and her work, with inaccurate claims about her research and the science of environmental protection — smears that would be laughable were there not so many ill-informed people who give them credence.  In contrast, there is no paid lobby to spread the good works of Rachel Carson — the truth simply stands on its own.

More about DDT and Alma, Michigan, at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:

Also see:


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