Best Small Town Crusade

In tiny Emmett, Idaho, a band of citizens are speaking up. And insisting that the government listen.

from Reader's Digest Magazine | May 2005


Poisoned by the Government

The stories came tumbling out. Three of the four Welch sisters, who grew up right in town and drank milk from Carrol’s Dairy, had thyroid problems and cancer. Four of the five Linville boys, who lived in adjacent counties, have cancer — the only brother spared was lactose intolerant. A disproportionate number of cars in the parking lot at St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute in nearby Boise seemed to have Gem County tags. Neck scars? Locals took to calling them Chernobyl necklaces.

Tona Henderson, owner of the bakery, recalled a visit in the 1950s by a great-uncle who brought along a Geiger counter. “A dust storm blew in over-night,” she said. “He took the Geiger counter out the next morning. All of a sudden it just pegged off the meter.”

Like many small rural communities, Emmett is a patriotic town, and the walls of the bakery are plastered with photos of local members of the military killed in seven different wars.

But now a sense of profound disillusionment was creeping into the conversations of patrons. Could the government have knowingly poisoned them? And if so, weren’t they entitled to the same compensation as victims in other Western states?

A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) board had scheduled a meeting to explore the public health impact of the fallout. The board would advise Congress whether federal compensation should be extended to residents of areas not on the original list.

These people need to get their stories out, thought Tona Henderson. She began to urge everyone with health problems who came through the bakery door to write to the NAS. Finally, she and her husband printed up 50 form letters and distributed them with morning coffee and doughnuts.

By now, with Sheri Garmon sick and living out of state, Henderson and reporter Monti had become ringleaders of the crusade to get the word out. “We need to do this on a bigger scale,” said Monti one morning, gazing at a table of Rumor Mill patrons pouring out their stories to a newspaper reporter. “Let’s do it at the park.”

The park, across from the county courthouse, was a green-lawned and shady oasis with a band shell. They could set up a microphone, invite people to come tell their stories, and Monti would run them in the Messenger Index. They’d also invited dignitaries: the governor, the Idaho congressional delegation, state legislators and the news media.

On the day of the park assembly, Henderson and Monti borrowed 100 chairs from the high school, set them up on the grass and waited, worrying that no one would show up. But then people started coming. They filled up the seats; then the overflow spread out across the grass, sitting on lawn chairs and standing under the huge maple trees. Some came on walkers or crutches. Others wore tubes linked to oxygen bottles. A few spoke with the raspy voices of thyroid cancer.

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