Arts Listings

Hush Money

By Gilbert G. Bendix
Friday December 28, 2007

Whenever I pass the site now, I instinctively glance at that little sentry booth, and it’s never occupied. I wonder whether it’s been that way ever since that day in 1984, when the lawyer deposited two big cartons of documents on the floor of our office. Selina, chemist, toxicologist, and my wife and professional partner, offered him one of the chairs surrounding her cluttered desk, and he wasted no time coming to the point. 

“The guards on both shifts have come down with cancer, and I’m representing a widow. Most of this stuff,” he gestured in the general direction of the boxes, “I got hold of through the discovery process. We’re not allowed to disclose any of this information except as necessary for this case. There are also copies of pages from the log books the guards had to keep, and they recorded every time noxious odors came from the chemical plant. I leave it to you to figure out what is useful and how it can be used.” 

The problem with the discovery process is that the other side is liable to bury you under paper—and nowadays under hard disks with e-mail messages. Plowing through everything from purchase orders to laboratory notebooks, the objective was to find something that correlates with the odors described in the guards’ log. Most of this work belonged to Selina, but, as it happened, I knew one of defendant’s retired engineers, and my contact was willing to talk. 

“Oh yes,” he confirmed, “not only did they release all of that stuff to the atmosphere, but they also dumped a lot of hazardous wastes on the ground.” He then proceeded to give me a pretty good idea about what we should be looking for in those boxes of papers. 

This was literally a smoking gun case—or rather a smoking chimney case. For many years, the guards had entered into the log every incident of detectable fumes emanating from defendant and every telephone call to defendant complaining about the odors. Odorous substances are not necessarily toxic, and many non-odorous substances, such as carbon monoxide, are deadly, but there were enough descriptions of the odors in the logs to give us a fair idea of at least some of the gases the guards had inhaled. 

Unlike in some of our cases, everything came together quickly. The attorney was efficient and got us everything we needed, from weather data to medical records, without delay. Since we’re all exposed to so many carcinogens, it’s seldom possible to definitely link a cancer to a specific causative agent, but, given all the information at our disposal, it did not take us long to make a convincing case for the guards’ cancer being probably caused by releases from defendant’s premises. 

The attorney took our report to defendant’s lawyers and, very few days later, was back in our office to pick up all of the records and to admonish us that our lips were sealed.  

Defendants had immediately decided that they did not want this case to go to court and our report to become public, and plaintiff’s attorney had to do what was in the best interest of his client, even if that was not in the public interest.  

Since plaintiff’s lips were sealed, we were never told the amount of the settlement, but we knew that the widow was well satisfied. And so were we. Financially. 

While attorneys are normally paid a percentage of the settlement, experts are paid an hourly rate, which is supposed to prevent avarice from clouding their professional judgment.  

So Selina and I were paid—by the hour—for doing honest work. Still, I couldn’t get away from the fact that our fee for doing that work came out of the hush money the widow had received. 

Yes, as I drive by that now-empty guard booth at the entrance to the Richmond Field Station, there’s a feeling of satisfaction about the widow having received what was her due without having to relive her past agony on the witness stand, but there’s also the feeling of guilt for having been part of a cover-up. 

Twenty years later, the silence was broken, and the notoriety the site achieved was beyond anything I could have hoped for but by then others had been injured.  

As I listened on Nov. 6, 2004 to the many citizens vent their outrage during the Assembly committee hearing on Campus Bay called by Loni Hancock, I felt both relieved at the truth emerging and grieved at the additional damage caused by 20 years of sealed lips.