Rose Johnson and the other kids would play in the streets of Newtown as yellow grain dust fell.
The dust’s odor is something she cannot shake.
When Johnson was recently walking the streets, she couldn’t see the dust but she caught that familiar smell.
“I just choked up, because I don’t ever want to smell that smell again,” Johnson said.
The Newtown neighborhood was built atop an old landfill east of Athens Street in the years immediately after the 1936 tornado that killed hundreds. The "New Town" was to serve black families displaced by the disaster. Industries such as Purina and Cargill didn't move in until the 1950s and 1960s.
The Newtown Florist Club started in 1950 as a group of 11 women going door to door collecting donations for flowers that would be presented at Newtown residents’ funerals. Over the years, the club members noticed high rates of cancer killing their neighbors.
Johnson, who is the Newtown Florist Club’s executive director, said the club’s environmental justice work really kicked off in the 1980s, as members of the community who were active in the club grew concerned about family members dying from throat, lung and colon cancers.
“It took us about 20 years to even begin to get a handle on the magnitude of the problem,” she said.
In 1978, the club asked the Environmental Protection Division to look into Purina’s sewage odors and grain dust.
A club-sponsored survey of Desota Street residents in 1990 found that neighbors shared similar types of cancers and respiratory problems.
Though the study was unscientific, it prompted the state health department to look into the matter. Later that year, officials from the state Department of Human Resources confirmed the higher rate of throat and mouth cancers in the neighborhood. But an investigation by Thomas McKinley, an environmental epidemiologist from the state office of epidemiology, attributed the rate of cancers to a lifestyle of smoking and drinking, according to a report he compiled for then-U.S. Rep. Ed Jenkins.
The Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes Center for Environmental Justice analyzed McKinley’s investigation in 1993. Stephen Lester, the organization’s science director at the time, called McKinley’s investigation "poorly designed" and "inadequate," according to a letter he wrote to Faye Bush, former Newtown Florist Club executive director.
Sonya Wilkins said her aunt, who spent most of her time between Newtown and Harrison Square, suffered shortness of breath and constant coughing.
The family started to notice the symptoms back in the mid- to late-1980s.
“She couldn’t talk like she normally talks,” Wilkins said of her aunt, who died in 1991 from lung cancer.
In recent decades, there have been four enforcement orders by the EPD concerning air quality in the Newtown area.
Purina Mills settled for $3,000 in 2002 regarding violations of rules for air quality control.
In 2003, Cargill settled for $5,000 regarding violations of an air quality operation permit.
The EPD settled with Land O’ Lakes Purina for $11,000 in 2007 for problems with the facility’s record-keeping and for malfunctioning equipment.
Cargill settled again in 2017 for $2,053 with the EPD regarding “failure to timely complete tune up of boilers.”
As the activist club approaches its 70th anniversary, it is still keeping a watchful eye on the health of its community.
Johnson recently visited the home of one of the longtime community members, Betty Ann Lewis, who died in September from metastatic cancer. As she stood in front of the woman’s house, she listened to constant clanking and banging, which she said she believes is coming from a nearby recycling center.
“I felt so bad. I felt so bad for her and her family, because I just didn’t realize that the noise that they were subjected to right there is as bad as it is, and it is really bad. It is really bad, and nobody, especially someone who is suffering from cancer, nobody should have to live under that kind of level of noise,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she hopes to speak with city officials regarding the noise concerns in the community.
City Manager Bryan Lackey said the city has received complaints and is working to set up meetings to discuss these concerns. City spokeswoman Christina Santee said the recycling center mentioned in the complaints is SA Recycling on Athens Street, which changed names in 2018.
Santee said the existing noise ordinance does not specify decibel levels.
“With that being said, we have reached out to the complainant to hear their concerns and hope to make that connection soon,” Santee wrote in an email last week.
There have been conversations in the past between previous owners and the city “regarding their operations in order to minimize impacts on the adjacent neighborhood,” which have included noise, Santee said. There have been no recent discussions, however, until the the city officials have had a chance to meet with the complainant.
Betty Ann Lewis’ daughter, Kristy Lewis Goss, said she felt the noise got worse in the evening. Her mother stayed at her home on Dunbar Street.
It all happened so fast, Goss said. They learned of the cancer in June, and Lewis died three months later.
Goss said her mother used to babysit for families in the neighborhood, hosted cookouts and did what she could for Newtown.
“All the kids always came here. My mom was like the neighborhood mom,” Goss said.
She said she wants peace in her neighborhood.
“We want to be able to rest at night,” Goss said.
SA Recycling general manager Berto Hernandez said the loudest noise made at the facility is a crane loading a truck with materials to ship out to the shredder.
Hernandez said they stop activities by 6 p.m. during the week and have followed the city’s rules.
“That train makes more noise when it goes by,” Hernandez said, pointing to the railroad tracks running near the back of the property in the industrial park.
He said he believes the loud banging sound would likely be the train.
Hernandez said he wants to help the community and is willing to work with the other citizens who have raised concerns.
In regard to the documented air quality issues, Johnson said there has been progress over the years.
The statewide average exposure for the general public to potentially harmful particulate matter in the air was nearly cut in half between 2003 and 2019, according to an analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.
“Right now, we are still concerned about the issue of generational exposure. We keep up with those who were children growing up in the community and what kinds of cancers or respiratory problems or related illnesses that they might even be suffering now, because generations of people were exposed to the toxins that were in the air, that have been in the air and in the ground,” Johnson said.