The Poisoning of a Black Southern Town

Wall Triana Road

By Curtis Price

February 4, 2022


I’m at the public housing projects in Triana, a tiny, nearly all-black town of about 400 on the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama. Triana ends at the dark, heaving waters of the Tennessee River. On the other side of the river begins the off-limits Redstone Arsenal, bigger than the city of Huntsville itself, and choked in impenetrable barbwire.  Sometimes you can hear the muffled boom! of weapons testing from Redstone echoing. Sometimes, gators crawl across the road from the fetid swamps a quarter-mile upwind.

My acquaintance has lived here for about a year. He likes the peace of living in the country. The projects themselves are older, one-story apartments. They feel vaguely Spanish, a stucco-pastel of washed-out ochre.  There’s lots of green and a small symphony of katydids buzz and hum. I can’t help but compare them to projects in the North, which look either like army barracks or small-scale prisons.

Triana housing projects

Back in the early 1800s, Triana was a commercial center in Alabama, its proximity to the river making it an ideal site for trade. Those days are long gone, but going to the Tennessee down Record Road, you can see at this wide juncture in the river’s bend how a natural harbor formed. If you hang around long enough, barges will silently appear and then whirl away, disappearing like river ghosts, carrying grain to poultry farms farther north.

Today, people come to picnic and boat.  Upscale whites from the new luxury complexes sprouting up on the outskirts of Triana are displacing black working-class residents using this stretch of the riverfront for barbecues and picnics.

For generations, the river fed Triana’s poor and working class. It was a free source of fish, the catfish, and bass that filled the Tennessee. Everyone fished or knew someone who fished to put food on the table. Until, 1979, that is.

In 1979, the then-Mayor of Triana, Clyde Foster, an Equal Opportunity officer for Redstone Arsenal and son of a Birmingham steel worker, found out from an anonymous phone call from a journalist that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had discovered elevated DDT levels in local fish, forty times the recommended level. When Foster asked “For how long?,” the reporter hung up. No government official had ever bothered to tell Triana.

The source of the DDT was traced to a factory on the far-flung fringes of Redstone Arsenal that had been leased to an outside corporation to make mustard gas and other chemical weapons in 1943. After the war, the plant changed hands and began producing  DDT. The Army documented plummeting bird numbers in the species that used the nearby Wheeler Refuge in the 1950s and finally, shut the plant down in the early 1970s as a result of the growing backlash against DDT and the blot of several fish kills in Spring Branch Creek, which fed into the Tennessee River.

Spring Branch Creek

The Olin Corporation, the last owner, had leeched four thousand tons of DDT into the river’s bottom soil. Foster went to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), which declined to get involved saying no research indicated that DDT was a health hazard to humans. One doctor at ADPH said he would just as soon sprinkle DDT as sugar on his morning cereal, since both carried the same level of harm.

Undeterred, Foster, a degreed engineer who had helped marshal Redstone Arsenal into the Civil Rights era, managed to interest a CDC doctor in Atlanta. She came to Triana and tested. What she found were high levels of DDT in blood, two to three times the national average. One elderly resident, a retired farmer, had the highest level of DDT ever recorded in a human at 3,300 parts per billion (the U.S. average is 16.5).

The headlines screamed a “Southern Love Canal” and labeled Triana “the unhealthiest town in America.” But it was the South. It was Alabama. And it was isolated, tiny, poor Triana, so interest quickly died and the New York journalists quickly turned their attention elsewhere, as New Yorkers often do when it comes to the South, back to Hollywood starlet scandals, Wall Street gyrations, and Andy Warhol’s latest soup cans, but with Triana briefly having its Warholian turn in the sun of fifteen fleeting minutes of fame.

However, outside of the media gaze, Mayor Clyde Foster fought tenaciously to make sure Triana wasn’t forgotten. Through his efforts and the resulting lawsuits, Olin Corporation was finally forced to pony up a substantial settlement. Triana became an EPA Superfund site, making it eligible for federal dollars. For a couple decades afterward, the river was dredged and the contaminated mud hauled off. Foster wanted a portion of the settlement monies to be funneled into a community clinic that would last for generations. Some accounts of the Triana disaster mention a community clinic set up by Foster.

I asked my friend where he thought the clinic could have been located. He thought it might have been in an abandoned building up from the Dollar General that he said a group of white crack heads was now squatting in. He also whispered darkly that since he moved to Triana, he noticed all long-term Triana residents have yellowed eyes from the DDT, a feature that’s managed to escape me in all my trips there.

I imagined Foster’s clinic would have been in the old log cabin shack down from the Triana library that in the early part of the twentieth century served as one of the few medical clinics for North Alabama’s black community. The clinic was run for decades by a single dedicated doctor and nurse and had been long abandoned. It would be fitting that Foster’s vision of free health care for all Triana residents would continue the work of earlier generations, the original clinic as a tree that would continue sprouting fruit.

Old Triana Clinic

But it turns out, that contrary to some published accounts, the permanent clinic was never built. At a memorial meeting sponsored by the Triana Historical Association, Foster’s daughter told me Triana residents wanted individual pay-outs and couldn’t see the long-term benefits of an embedded community clinic. So the settlement money flooded in and quickly went out again, as it always does in poor and working-class communities, which end up just being conduits of monies into other, fatter pockets, and Triana was never fortuned with its own clinic.

However, the other clinic, that old, weather-beaten, one-room shack, is now, after decades of being left to the elements, being restored as a historical site, a long-overdue recognition of its role in Alabama black history. (1)

As I left Triana, driving along Zerit Road, on a finger-like peninsula jutting into the muddy Tennessee waters, I noticed a solitary figure silhouetted against the grey sky, holding a fishing rod. I don’t think personally I would have enough faith in soothing government reports that everything was cleaned up and fish fit to eat.

Tennessee River, near Triana

But the biggest threat to Triana’s future may not come from the river but from the land. The area surrounding Triana is being gobbled up by developers building fancy, cookie-cutter townhouse complexes with faux Olde English names like The Greens at Eastwick. And who knows, considering the never-ending, voracious demand for housing in Huntsville’s metastasizing upscale suburbs, if Triana will slowly get whittled away out of existence in a few decades?

Notes

1. For an overview of Alabama’s larger black hospital movement, see http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2410

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