An Environmental Warrior Gone


Mark O’Connor of Bryan, Texas, who died last year at the age of forty-one, was a true environmental hero. O’Connor, who battled and defeated a corporate Goliath, passed away at home September 18, suddenly and silently, apparently as a consequence of a blood clot. Mark led the fight that finally resulted in 1996 in the closure of the dangerous Bryan Elf Atochem plant (it had suspended chemical operations by 1993), putting an end to many years of deadly arsenic pollution. His actions proved that citizens can achieve the seemingly impossible: shutting down dangerous chemical plants which injure communities with their poisons.

In Bryan, arsenic contamination from the Elf Atochem pesticide plant became the leading East Texas environmental issue of the early nineties. Mark made sure of that. During the battle, Mark was tenacious as a pit bull – a citizen investigator with a brilliant gift for finding dirt under official rugs. Although his investigative success was amazing, he was personally humble about his research. He simply had a zeal for getting at the truth, and he didn’t mind offending corporate chieftains or public officials to do so. In his eagerness to help poisoned communities and citizens fight polluters, he was one of a kind, and he brought a gifted intelligence to discovering and documenting what local officials as well as state agencies already knew but had ignored or covered up – often for years.

I first met Mark in October of 1992, when I was invited to speak at a Brazos Valley Sierra Club meeting in College Station. (I had recently left my job as an investigator at the Texas Air Control Board, after blowing the whistle on an agency air pollution coverup in Odessa.) Mark had told the group about pollution at the Elf Atochem arsenic-pesticide plant, and they wanted my opinion. Could the problem be as bad as Mark was saying?

The Bryan plant manufactured a highly toxic herbicide, arsenic acid, to be sprayed on cotton as a defoliant prior to harvesting. The acid had been manufactured in Bryan for many decades, and most recently was being produced from arsenic trioxide, a mineral imported from China. During the course of many years of production, arsenic leaked into the soils on and off the plant property, and into the water and air of the city of Bryan. (In 1976, after Pennwalt was ordered to stop discharging arsenic-contaminated water into public water sources, the company responded by spraying it into the air – thereby dispersing it throughout the entire Bryan area.) Arsenic is a highly toxic metal, known to cause cancer, birth defects, and respiratory problems. It is also a suspected mutagen (causing damage to DNA), and a suspected cause of heart and gastrointestinal problems, impaired memory, nervous system problems, and sexual dysfunction.

How bad was the arsenic problem in Bryan? In the nineties, severely brain-damaged infants were born to families living near the plant.

After that initial meeting, Mark approached me to share his detailed knowledge of the Bryan situation. Mark worked as an assistant to his father, Rod O’Connor, a chemist and environmental consultant, and his technical understanding was exceptional. He described in blunt terms how poorly Elf Atochem was cleaning up its mess. He was further concerned an old-fashioned Texas coverup was underway. In prolific and passionate letters to the T.A.C.B. (including then-chairman Kirk Watson, now the mayor of Austin), he attacked the agency’s cleanup plan, in long, technical pleadings strongly urging the environmental agency to do what was truly needed, even if that meant great expense.

Mark convinced me that there were huge problems of arsenic contamination and air pollution at Bryan, and that the air agency was very reluctant to act against it. In response to Mark’s research and persistence, I also became convinced that since the eighties, when the plant was owned by Pennwalt, the T.A.C.B. had chosen to cover up the arsenic mess, and essentially walk away from it. In response to the company’s repeated violations, the T.A.C.B. had issued an agreed order with no penalty, and utterly ineffective cleanup requirements.

In the early nineties, Elf Atochem of North America had acquired the Pennwalt Corporation’s U.S. plants, but the company claimed no responsibility for the facility in Bryan. Yet Preston Seymour III, C.E.O. of Elf Atochem, had for many years been C.E.O. of Pennwalt. Defying threats and intimidation by the company, Mark insisted publicly that Elf Atochem was the same as Pennwalt, since it was run by essentially the same executives.

Mark and I quickly became allies in the fight against the Elf Atochem pollution. I wrote a heated technical letter to the agency, and an article appeared in the Bryan newspaper about the toxic emissions from the plant. I managed to arrange a tour of the facility, and discovered more problems that the T.A.C.B.’s air inspectors had overlooked. The inspection also confirmed that Mark had been dead right about most of the plant’s problems. For the next year, a few plant neighbors and I joined Mark in writing a series of letters to the T.A.C.B. and its successor, the T.N.R.C.C. The company continued its resistance, but the relentless public pressure, involving people across the state as well as the immediate area, finally drove the agency to issue violations against Elf Atochem. In 1996, T.N.R.C.C. issued fines of more than $400,000 against the company, citing virtually all the air pollution violations first presented in vain to the T.A.B.C.

Despite that victory, unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Mark had also described to me his conversations with former plant employees, who said that in previous years they had observed drums of toxic waste being illegally buried at the plant, at a site that had since been paved for parking. The F.B.I. conducted a criminal probe of Elf Atochem, and considered the question of illegal burial of waste, but delays pushed the investigation past the five-year statute of limitations, and there were no indictments. In July of 1993 the F.B.I. raided the plant’s Bryan offices as well as the company’s Pennsylvania headquarters. Since that time, we have been expecting investigators to begin excavating the parking lot for the illegally disposed toxic waste drums. It hasn’t happened yet. In Mark’s absence, others must take up the fight.

Mark’s zeal for the truth was reflected in his passionate and sometimes angry speech. His aggressive manner unnerved some people, but to me it was refreshing. In my eighteen years of doing environmental work in Texas, I have seen the awful results of chemical poisoning, and the injuries and deaths left in its wake. These take a terrible direct toll on many communities. But even the battle against that poisoning can be personally devastating – a terrible strain on those who fight, as well as their families and friends. Texas environmental activists have been followed, had their lives threatened, their businesses burned, their phones tapped. Mark was made of the same stuff as Karen Silkwood. Despite threats and attempts at intimidation from polluters and their allies, he continued to fight the good fight. He was always following the scent of his latest research, and he never ceased to inspire me with his relentlessness and his determination to make those responsible for environmental poisoning clean up their mess.

With his energy, insight, and activism, Mark O’Connor left the world a better place, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude – a debt to be paid in action. His light will be missed, especially in Texas, where he continued to work on several contamination cases. I was blessed to have known and worked with him. h

Neil J. Carman is the clean air director for the Austin-based Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. For twelve years he was an air pollution investigator for the Texas Air Control Board.

What Battles Are You Waging?

From an August 23, 1998 e-mail from Mark O’Connor:

Well I’ll be damned – Neil Carman – how the hell are ya?…

Are you still with Sierra Club? I’ve spent most of this year with my dad, consulting for an attorney out of Marshall who’s got several pretty big environmental suits going. He’s suing over the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant on Caddo Lake, Eastman Chemical in Longview, Susan Nugent’s case against Pilgrims’, a wood treatment plant in Gilmer, and a handful of others. I’ve actually had something approaching a real income for the first time in several years. There’s evidently some pretty interesting stuff going on involving the Longhorn plant, where a lab has been indicted for falsifying data on the contamination there…. Plus, I just found a document on the internet last night showing that 35,000 lbs. of mercury were dumped there that may well account for the mercury in Caddo that no one seemed to know the origin of. Also, believe it or not, the criminal investigation against Atochem here in Bryan is still progressing, having been taken up by the local D.A., the Texas Rangers and D.P.S. after the F.B.I. dropped it.…

How about yourself? What battles have you been waging lately?… Inquiring minds want to know!…. Good to hear from you.

— Mark O’Connor