Thirty Pages of Purple Chicken Scratch

by Tim Stelloh, July 5, 2006

As Willits contemplated the fate of Remco's toxic legacy last month at the June 12 City Council meeting, there was one unanswered question that haunted the evening's testimony.

What happened to the audio recordings of State's health panel meeting?

The question, of course, refers to an "expert panel" convened on March 29 at UC San Francisco by the California Department of Health Services (CDHS). The panel was to discuss the future of Willits, and what the City should do about health problems associated with those nagging heavy metals that Remco, the chrome plating plant now owned by PepsiAmerica, dumped into the City's air and soil for years. Doctors, community members and lawyers attended the State meeting. They talked for over eight hours.

On June 12, the Willits City Council listened to City consultants who attended that March meeting and, based largely on their testimony, decided to take a $4 million deal that, if approved by Federal Judge Susan Ilston, would absolve Pepsi from paying the City for future damages from Remco's poisonous mess. The consultants said that the panel decided that medical monitoring would be useless. The City agreed. That was that.

Unfortunately, the public was also told that the audio from that March meeting had been destroyed.

Rachaud Reed, owner of Aeon Events, the company hired by CDHS to record the public meeting, said in a letter to CDHS that an "equipment malfunction" destroyed the audio. Yet in an interview, Reed said that he advised CDHS to use one of his techs to record the meeting, but CDHS cited budget constraints and declined to shell out $350 to hire Reed's tech for the day. Instead, he said, the agency decided to record the meeting on its own.

"We warned them," said Reed. "I said they should have a tech there, and they said they didn't want one. It was too much."

After Reed's tech got the recording started, the tech left. At some point after the first disc was recorded, the CD burner failed, and the subsequent seven hours of recordings were lost. Reed said that he'd encountered such problems in the past, but didn't tell CDHS. He also said that these problems were usually due to "user error" — though he stopped short of blaming CDHS for the snafu.

CDHS declined to verify any of these details, and simply echoed Reed's letter in blaming the equipment.

If Reed's observation holds true for CDHS, it's a blow for both the schlubs at the State Health Department and the public. Because CDHS was either too damn cheap or didn't have the money to hire Reed's tech, Willits residents who couldn't make the trek to San Francisco in March never had a chance to hear what was actually said at the meeting.

The City contends that the panel decided medical monitoring would be a waste of time, while Dr. Robert Harrison, the UCSF professor who chaired the meeting, said that medical monitoring — as well as evaluation and education — need to be considered. Either way, the City didn't wait for the panel's report, which will be released in the fall, before taking the deal.

Without the recording, the meeting's details are nearly lost — except for the 30 massive flip charts housed three hours south of Willits in CDHS's three-story, prison-like headquarters in Richmond. Many of these charts — which consist of notes recorded at the meeting — are nearly unintelligible, and the purple, brown and red magic marker chicken scratch doesn't make much sense without the audio. There are occasional moments of clarity, such as one doctor's assertion that "something bad happened" (presumably in Willits), or another's revelation that, "for legal reasons, we are not evaluating."

Many of the notes are questions, such as: "Is hex chr. dust still present in houses? Thinks this is still unanswered." Others sound like wishful thinking. "Need capability to do broader eval. and education," says one. "Provide service with notification... great value to be able to go to clinic/specialty consultant plus general medicine," says another.

This is largely the tone of the notes. There are more questions than answers, more confusion than insight, and Dr. Harrison's observations seem more on point than the City's.

Either way, the public took another blow when the Willits City Council decided to fast track the $4 million deal. Pepsi probably would have squashed the offer, but the Council should have showed some backbone. They should have told the folks at Latham and Watkins that they would just have to wait until the report was released before considering the offer.

They didn't, of course, and all the citizens of Willits have to show for it is 30 pages of chicken scratch and two dimwitted decisions.

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