Tuesday, October 18, 2005

On Chat, Lead Poisoning, and FBI Raids

Ok, I have several stories that I want to tell involving a job I had several years ago. The problem is, that to make any sense of those stories you have to have some information concerning the job and what I did. So the first half of this post may be a little tedious, but it is completed with a grand tale of intrigue. Tell me you like it and I'll fill some later posts with crazy, mad tales from the same time.

Between the years 1999-2000 I worked in NE Oklahoma, a desolate, desperate, depressed area. . For the better part of the last century this section of the country was mined for various metals, including lead. The lead mining in this community was so enormous they say there is enough underground tunnels that if you laid them all out in a straight line you would drive halfway across the country.

The displaced soil from these tunnels, what the locals call chat, and which consists mainly of small bits of rock and lead, has been placed on top of each other forming great mountain like piles. There are large sections of the area that look a lot like parts of Arizona and Nevada that you can see in old John Wayne movies. It was really quite beautiful and spooky.

Loads of chat from these "mountains" was used throughout the community to fill in drive ways, roads, and to smooth out yards. This added to the already high levels of lead contamination in the soil, causing extensive health problems for the community.

We've all heard about the dangers of lead poisoning from old water pipes, paint and even old dishes. Well this community not only had lead in all of those places, but in the very ground they walked upon, and the air that they breathed. Children are especially susceptible to lead contamination, and in fact, there was a high rate of related health problems in the area.

The EPA (that’s Environmental Protection Agency to you non yanks) moved in and decided they needed to do something about it. Through the US Army Corps of Engineers they hired the company I worked for to do the clean up. We went to each property, tested the soil and if the soil was contaminated we removed it and backfilled with clean soil.

My job was insurance. I came to the property before any work was done and documented any pre-existing damage to the homes inside, outside and underneath. I took digital photos, shot video and filled out a long checklist documenting any damage that existed to the houses, land and anything sitting on the land. So, if a homeowner decided to sue my company because we caused some damage to their home, we would have proof that it was damaged long before we go there.

And believe me, there was often plenty of pre-existing damage. Like I said this was a very depressed area. The mining companies had long since left, leaving the few members of the community who wanted to remain with very few means of surviving.

Even though we were doing about $30000 worth of work to these properties and charging the homeowners absolutely nothing (it was a superfund site meaning the $$ didn't come from tax dollars, either, but rather from donations to the EPA and from fines they had levied upon various companies) some of the homeowners hated us. To them here was big government coming in to take over their lives. Or to a few others here was big money government whom they could sue and get rich off of. After a few months with the local paper writing semi-weekly articles on how we were causing water damage to the houses we worked on (in my inspecting I found that more than half of the homes I inspected had inches of water standing under their crawlspace) the complaints from homeowners became more frequent. I once literally had to take a complaint from a lady who said there was water in her yard that morning….it had poured some 4 inches of rain that very morning!)

At any rate tension were pretty high between the townspeople, my company, and the federal government.

One day, while out on assignment, I heard over the walkie-talkies we used to communicate a call to one of the foremen that he needed to head back to the office. A few minutes later a similar call came to the other foremen. Then one of the Army Corps of Engineers was called back to the office.

I felt all this was peculiar, but I was a small fry in the company and continued with my work. I needed to head back to the office a bit later and did so with no worries. I imagined there was some kind of onsite accident that needed the attention of the bigger wigs.

Since it was construction work, our onsite offices were noting but a group of trailers. As I drove back to the office I noticed a large number of cars lining the sides of the street. This, too was a bit unusual, but not that rare. A funeral home was located nearby and periodically the streets would be line down the road for a funeral. There were a number of people also standing by the side of the road, and though unusual, I didn't see anything completely askew at this point.

I slowed down to make the turn into my office complex. Just as I was turning I noticed one very large man walking across the street towards my building. On the back of his jacket, in bright white letters read:


Holy crap! What is that guy doing here? I wondered.

I parked and headed to my friend Sandy's trailer, expecting she would know something. I walked into her office only to find that Sandy was no there, but instead, two more, very large men with even larger pistols strapped to their sides were searching through the office.

One of them turned to me as I entered and asked very abruptly, what I wanted. I timidly said I was looking for my friend and U-turned it straight out.

When I entered my building, which was the main trailer on site I was greeted by Sandy, the project Engineer, my boss and various other office workers. They were all lined against a wall, sitting on the floor.

Moving like ants whose hill has just been stomped on, a variety of FBI, IRS and Federal Marhsalls were zipping throughout the building. One, enormous male, stopped long enough to tell me to join the others against the wall. They were digging through all of our files, and collecting them for removal. They were even downloading everything off of our computers and confiscating the hard drives. No one would tell us precisely what they were looking for.

We were told we could not leave the premises until the search was complete.

Outside the line of cars I had seen previously, grew. Large masses of people stood across the street, staring at this circus. Media from Joplin, Missouri and Tulsa came up with their video cameras.

At around 7 that evening the officers finally let us all go home, still not willing to tell us just what they were looking for. They had essentially stripped all of our offices of every piece of data we had used over the last couple of years.

It was several months later when I found out that one of the top folks from my company had been bilking the government out of huge sums of money. Apparently this guy filled out work orders for things never completed. Added fake names to work lists, etc.

I believe they finally gave up on the cleanup and simply paid for everyone in the community to move.

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