Flint, Michigan is a special place to me. The infamous “vehicle city” is not just some random emotionally disconnected place from a national news piece I watched while in a sleepless daze, or a scene in a politically slanted Michael Moore movie, it’s a place that is interwoven into my activism career, a place that will be a part of me for the rest of my life.
Many years ago, in 2013, I was the man who tried to stop what would eventually become the Flint Water Crisis, three years before the atrocious mass poisoning of Flint became national news.
Meet The Region 5 EPA
Much like Flint, my original home town of Akron, Ohio is also overseen by the Region 5 EPA and we too suffered a toxic incident in our neighborhood, back in 1987, when I was eleven years old, one that would infect my life like an insistently virulent plague, eventually leaving me a shattered and crumbling shell of a man.
There was a metal reclaiming facility about a mile from my childhood home that was leaking toxic waste all over the neighborhood, filling our local lake that was used as our former community swimming pool with cadmium, chromium-6, dioxin, lead, mercury, arsenic, and PCB’s, among dozens of other heavy metals and volatile organic compounds.
The EPA showed up, told us the site was safe, told us “there is probably not a problem with the lake.” Because they calmed the pubic fears, community interest in the site quickly died down, until virtually no one paid any mind to surreptitiously looming toxic menace in our own back yards.
Around 1988, my friends and I came along, discovered the dump and began using it as our playground. The gate was open, there were no signs warning us to stay out, because a local biker gang had stolen them. One of the most interesting features of the dump was the mud puddles one could set on fire if they held a lighter up to the murky, multi-color threaded but brown water. At one point, I’d even found what my childhood brain recognized as a bomb. My friends and I continued to play at the scrap yard for the next few years.
In 1991, while the US EPA was working on the clean-up, workers found unexploded ordnance, or tank and mortar shells, that were dumped there by The Defense Logistics Agency. Even though the EPA had told us there was not a problem with the lake, EPA employees found Dioxin on the beach of Nesmith Lake, taking me back to images of babies digging in the sand, children running around and swimming in the polluted water.
It turned out, back in 1987, the EPA had lied to my community. As a result, we swam in that lake and played in that junk yard with no idea what we were exposing ourselves to.
In my early 20’s I started getting sick. First it was a nerve disorder in my right foot. Six years later I would be left riddled with multiple physical illnesses, from Fibromyalgia, to nerve damage in my hands, eventually leaving me devastatingly sick, suffering, and barely able to live my seemingly valueless life, still completely unaware that the scrap yard I played in was a toxic waste dump, so as I spent many years undergoing medical tests to find out what was wrong with me, my doctors never saw the records for that scrap yard.
Around 2005, I was surfing on the internet when I found the EPA records for the Summit Equipment & Supplies Superfund site and learned that my childhood playground, the scrap yard, was an atrociously polluted chemical wasteland. When I went to our local newspaper, The Akron Beacon Journal, to ask about the site, the local environmental writer threatened me, saying, “You should stay out of this.” At that time in my life I was broke, had no power to stand up to the city, so I left it alone but vowed to some day rise up and expose that site and what the EPA had done to me by not making sure I was educated about the health hazards of entering that dump.
Over the following three years, I would endure all sorts of hardship, from opiate addiction from the drugs they were giving me to treat all the pain, to jail, to homelessness, after my life became completely unmanageable. By this time I had moved out to the West Coast. I was living in a doorway covered in dirt, a homeless disabled person, carrying around the records for the toxic waste dump that devoured my life and left me for dead, telling my story to people who would just nod, smile, and say, “Yeah right, buddy, here’s a dollar. Try not to spend it on drugs.”
One day, while I was living in the street, I became exhaustingly tired of my situation. I decided, of all things, that I was going to become a filmmaker. I took the last of the money I had and instead of finding a place to live and I bought a video camera. I started hitchhiking around the country, making YouTube videos about travel, learning my craft, with the goal of eventually bringing myself back to life and exposing that toxic waste dump and the EPA that failed to protect me.
Poison in the Grapes
Ten months after I picked up my camera, Turner Networks called me because they’d heard about this crazy travel show I was making, after I’d started hopping concert gates to get interviews with celebrities. Less than a year after I’d been homelessness and destitute, I was walking down the street talking to the Director of Comedy Development for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. They were interested in my show and asked me to create a TV pilot out of the footage I had created.
Once this happened, all of the doors in the industry opened up to me, where they remain open to this day. Turner Networks ended up not buying my show. I spent the next two years of my life living on the street, making a graphic film about homelessness. After I made the film, I met an engineer from Google who liked what I was doing and graciously agreed to fund my film work.
I immediately used the money to buy myself a new camera, a new laptop, and I took off for Akron, Ohio, now with the filmmaking skills to make a solid short film about the Summit Equipment & Supplies Superfund site. During the making of the film, I traveled to the Region 5 EPA to ask them to come to our community. As the story goes, instead of helping me, they threw me out, a scene that is featured in the resulting short film Poison in the Grapes.
Thirteen days after I was in the EPA office, the Superfund director for Region 5 issued a statement on federal records, “There is no concern from the community,” as there was a Facebook Fan Page running, and petitions, demonstrating concern from the community. He’d lied.
He buried my cause, issued a press release to the Akron Beacon Journal saying there was “no concern,” which was delivered right to the door steps of the more than one thousand people who had signed the petition demanding that The EPA come to our neighborhood and help us understand what had happened. The local media never wrote about our cause, rather choosing to look the other way, as they did all the way back in 1987. Eventually, in spite of years of hard work and struggle, my cause was over, crushed under the weight of special interest and corruption, and even my own community turned against me and began attacking me.
After the release of the film, I took off back to Los Angeles, where I landed a shot to make a music video for progressive music legend, and Dream Theater keyboardist, Jordan Rudess, who while we were filming the video was nominated for a Grammy, an almost karmic success, to repay me for everything I had just endured.
A National Perspective
Because of the loss in Akron, I began traveling the country, looking for other examples of EPA corruption and no matter where I went, I found it, from the Asheville CTS Superfund site, to the plumes of Trichloroethelyne in the ground water in Burbank, California that the EPA still has not notified residents about, even though TCE vapor has been shown to cause lung cancer and genetic mutations.
I learned that there were over 1,300 Superfund toxic waste sites in The US and that up until this point the national media had never written about the subject, even though the Superfund project had been going on since the early 1980’s, which is a staggering example of the failure of the press to educate the public about what amounts to nothing more than a massive, national public health issue.
In 2014, after traveling to hundreds of toxic waste sites, I published my Death Water Toxic Waste Advocacy writing piece, which to date has over a million readers, and in the process, I became the first person in The US to effectively nationally expose the existence of the Superfund project.
At first, everyone thought I was some kind of “anti-government right wing nut job,” because no one had ever heard of the Superfund, but in the years since everyone from National Geographic to Time Magazine have followed suit and published articles about the subject, eventually taking me from the fringes to the mainstream, making it much easier for me to talk about the cause without getting treated like some anti-government right wing nut job chem trails schizophrenic.
Because of what I had personally witnessed I began writing to media outlets, activists, and filmmakers all over the country, begging them to help join in my fight to cause reform at the Region 5 EPA, because I was concerned that if we didn’t do something that there was going to be a massive toxic waste incident. I became chicken little, and to me, the sky was falling.
I went to Erin Brockovich, Michael Moore, Amy Goodman, all of the environmental non-profits, and hundreds of media outlets. Literally, no one would listen to me.
The Media Are Heroes, Right?
In August of 2014, one year after the release of Poison in the Grapes, I returned to Akron, Ohio and brought WEWS ABC News with me, to raise awareness of the Superfund project, and to fight to get the PCB’s and toxic waste out of the lake in my childhood neighborhood.
Instead of delivering a news piece about what I had called them about, Joe Pagonakis, a local investigative reporter, delivered a hit piece, once again slapping down my attempts to hold Region 5 accountable, with the Region 5 EPA issuing completely false statements to ABC News, who readily published them, claiming that the EPA had tested the lake during the original incident, when there are third party sourced statements, from the EPA themselves, stating that they had not. More lies.
As a result of my efforts, I doubled down on my contacts to the media, begging anyone and everyone that could help, to join in and help me cause reform at Region 5, because after witnessing their actions, the corruption, and their blatant criminality, if someone didn’t stop them, a lot of people were going end up poisoned in a toxic incident as the US EPA sat at their desks twiddling their thumbs and looking the other way.
Six months after the news piece, I wrote an article about a missing woman, that got national attention. The day after this article went out I got a call from the EPA investigators. At first I was excited. I thought I had won my battle and the US EPA was finally going to help me, but this was not the case. In the middle of the call the investigator revealed that they were investigating me for walking into the Region 5 EPA, eighteen months earlier. At the end of the phone call, even though I wasn’t hiding, the investigator screamed, “We’ll find you!!” just before I hung up on him.
As all of this was going on, I continued to travel the country, fighting for environmental causes, eventually locating and exposing the existence of a federally confirmed cancer cluster in Moab, Utah, among other battles, efforts which I continue, to this very day.
Flint Water Crisis
Then, in 2015, the Flint Water Crisis happened, a massive toxic incident, a mass poisoning, the very type of incident I had been warning people about for the last several years, exactly. I was sitting in my cabin watching TV when Erin Brockovich appeared on the screen, exasperatingly saying, “Why wouldn’t they listen to me?!” I was so angry my head about fell off my shoulders.
Then, she started calling people who knew and didn’t act murderers, as I had spent the greater part of the last several years screaming at this woman to do something about Region 5. One by one, all the people and organizations I contacted showed up in Flint as the “champions of clean water,” from Amy Goodman to Michael Moore, with no sense of shame, whatsoever, as I sat in my cabin in the woods, living in utter obscurity. simmering in my own anger.
Eventually, the Inspector General investigated Region 5, over Flint, and the director was forced to resign, leading to the ironic fate that I’d never even had to fight them to begin with because she ended up taking herself out with the very corruption I was trying to expose in the first place!
When I read about the 12,000 children that were poisoned, I fell into a state of depression. I started lying awake at night, feeling like I had done something wrong, like if I had just fought a little harder to expose Region 5 that I could have led to reform, long before the Flint Water Crisis, that if I had done so, the EPA would have acted a lot sooner, preventing several deaths from Legionnaire’s Disease and the poisoning of the aforementioned children.
Since then, I have lived with that guilt and the anger at all the people who wouldn’t listen to me, especially the activists. All of those people who claimed to care, did not actually care, and my life is a glaring example of proof for that unfortunate fact.
Then, several weeks ago, I received a contact from the EPA Office of Investigations who assigned a hotline number and an investigator to look into the series of events that took place in 2013/2014, the false statements to the news, the perjury on federal records, the threatening calls from EPA investigators, all of it.
Shortly after I announced on my fan pages that the EPA’s Office of Investigations was looking into my story, WEWS ABC News deleted the written article from their website with the false statement’s from the Region 5 EPA, seemingly attempting to obstruct justice in a federal investigation into their own actions and once again working to protect the Region 5 EPA which is slowly killing us all.
Once again the battle continues. I will get justice for Flint, for my community in Akron, every other community the EPA has damaged with it’s willful negligence. I will not rest until the US EPA is held accountable for all of its failures, all across the country, because even though I am a liberal, if we don’t stand up to the EPA and force them to do their jobs, nothing with ever change. You can say EPA Lives Matter, but remember, your lives don’t matter to them, not in the least.
Flint will be always be a special place for me, because it’s the community I tried to save from the clutches of the corrupt region 5 EPA, long before the citizens even knew anything was happening.