Right To Know Committee: Southwest Philadelphia Workers And Residents Fight Back!

The Right To Know Committee (RTKC) came together in response to the toxic workplace and neighborhood conditions brought on by two factories in Southwest Philly. In June of 1994, a Defense Personnel Supply Center (DPSC) and an oil refinery complex (run by Sunoco Oil) were put under scrutiny by the federal government following the findings of massive pollutant outputs deep under the surface of the surrounding neighborhoods. These two factories have been sitting along the Schuykill river for decades, putting out countless tons of chemical waste into the river, soil, and air.

According to the City of Philadelphia's Department of Public Health, there has been a disproportionate number of fatalities and health problems in the surrounding neighborhoods since the opening of these factories. Those most affected have been the workers, and the residents of the Passyunk Homes community that is located next to the refinery. When the Federal government shut down the DPSC and the refinery for a closer look workers were laid off and their issues were swept under the rug with limited or no compensation. At the same time, local residents were displaced from their homes.

The refinery reopened after limited cleaning, but there are thousands of families in Southwest Philly that are still getting sick. Shortly after one of the shutdowns, a small group of committed ex-workers and Passyunk tenants merged to form the Right To Know Committee. For a decade, RTKC has successfully mobilized hundreds of members of the communities affected.

The following is an interview with Mabel Mallard, who co-founded the group in 1994.

Strike! : Give us a little bit of background on some of the health-related and other issues that you have had over the years as a result of working in the DPSC and living in southwest Philly.

Mabel : In September of 1988, after working as a seamstress in the DPSC, I was punctured by a DDT-laced sewing needle that made me sick with constant pain and dizzy spells for one month until I finally had an infection set in. I had to have emergency surgery and I was in critical condition in the hospital for nine days. I have had three metal clips in my abdomen for 14 years and over six surgeries in that time, too. As I looked through the textbooks, I found that once DDT is in your system it stays there forever. They knew all along that the water and everything in southwest Philly was contaminated with these chemicals and that was why they tried to replace the sewage lines between Sunoco and DPSC in 1967. But when they did that, 4 workers died because of the chemicals underground and the city was sued.

S! : What was the original response in the community?

M : If you got money, move and get the hell out of here. But now the new people who move in don't even know about all this stuff. Part of the Right to Know Committee's [RTKC] goal is to bring about awareness, not to bring about a solution because nobody can actually bring about a solution to something that's been going on for 40-50 years. You can't come in here over night and solve the problem just because you build new houses or put new soil over top of this old kind of toxic waste.

S! : When and why did the DPSC shut down?

M : 1994. They were building an elevator in the factory and saw all this oil and realized they were sitting on a time bomb.

S! : Did you have a union at this place?

M : We had a union. The local 102 federal workers union [AFSCME]. And I'm here looking at them like how come you didn't do what you were supposed to do all this time?

S! : How did they [the union] react to the factory closing?

M : They were right there to give us health benefits and give us training and give us job referrals but they knew we were sick. How can you go out and start a new life when you got all this here stuff that's been in your body all these years? They did nothing but get the heck out of there themselves.

S! : Who shut the factory down?

M : Congress. They felt that they needed to cut back on military spending which our factory contributed to. They need war to keep on going. When there's no war, there's suddenly no job for me.

S! : What did workers in the factory do when it was shut down?

M : Those who had retirement would get a lump sum of money. I was offered early retirement when I was out on disability, but you're not supposed to get disability when you retire, you're supposed to wait until you get to that age that you need to be to get retirement [62] which hopefully I can make it to if I can be around for that long! A lot of workers have not been able to receive their benefits like they should. They took away most of our health benefits and only gave it to us for two years after the factory closed. But people are still sick, so they have had to take money out of their retirement funds to pay for their health problems. And I think that's the way they got over on us. Here they poison us, give us the little bit of money for retirement and now we have to use it to pay for our medical expenses. OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Association] did come in 1996, after they had shut the place down already, and documented some of the health hazards such as the fact that DPSC did not even have a permit to manufacture poisonous waste until 1980 even though they had been doing it for years before that. I remember being around barrels full of chemicals that didn't even have lids on them. The Right to Know Laws were passed in 1986 stating that they had to report this information and that's where our name came from because we have the right to know. At least they could have given us safety masks and something to put on our hands. I seen a woman just fall over at the sewing machine and die and people would just get sick all the time and have to leave work. I have over 300 [questionnaire] documents of people from my work stating their sicknesses and long-term health problems.

S! : Was this people from work and the neighborhood?

M : Oh sure! Most of the people from the factory lived in the neighborhood, too.

S! : Do you feel that people from wealthier neighborhoods are more likely to get help from the powers that be than you when they organize around issues like these, and why?

M : Well, the way I see it is, it's not about helping you to them, it's about 'What can you do for me?' They say 'What good is it for me to help you unless you can help me." Who is "they"?

S! : Politicians?

M : Yeah, politicians! They listen to you when they want to, but they won't come to your meetings. That's why I never expect to hear anything from them when I write them a letter about our cause or our meeting, but I have to be able to show people that I tried to do it that way.

S! : What more specifically do you see as the reason why there is difference between the way your community and other more affluent communities (in the suburbs, for example) are treated around the issues the RTKC is dealing with?

M : The race barrier. You have to realize one thing. What is happening over there in Iraq has a lot to do with what is happening here. This country is based on racism. You might as well say "I'm out to get you".

S! : What do you mean by the connection between the war in Iraq and what's happening to you?

M : The connection that I see is that they are oppressed just like we've been oppressed right here in South Philly and I know how to accept and change my condition. That is all. Change your condition, accept what you can't change and move on.

S! : Do you think that if people were able to come together and realize some of the conditions that do exist and oppress them and decide to organize around these issues that they could do something about it?

M : To me, it's out of hand. Something has to stop it and it seems to me that the only thing that's going to stop it is another war. But I'm not talking like this here war that's going on in Iraq. How can people be running themselves or taking care of themselves in the state of condition that things are in now? It's the power that that man [George W. Bush] and others have. That's the problem. That's what's got to change first.

S! : Tell us a little more about the RTKC.

M : It started in 1994 when the manufacturing company closed. I got hold of a study by Johns Hopkins University about south and southwest philly and it stated that the DPSC had a problem with leaking tanks and toxic waste and I said "so that's what I've been smelling all these years"! All this waste was dumped into the river and could be traced right back to the DPSC. So I started calling some people and found out that lots of my fellow workers had gotten cancer and other illnesses. Some couldn't work no more and some were getting strokes and these were people who'd never had these kinds of diseases in their families. So we said we are going and try to get a lawyer and sue the government. I have had meetings with hundreds of people in my neighborhood who were willing to fight this stuff. That was when I met Myrtle Carter. They were dealing with the same problems related to waste being underneath and around their homes and in their water and air. The city was hurrying up and getting people the hell out of there. She was in charge of the tenants’ council in the Passyunk Homes. So I got in touch with her and said well, since y’all are dealing with the same issues as us, let's join and become a group and fight these people. Her lawyers were giving her the runaround just like my lawyers because nobody wanted to fight this thing. It was too big and no one wanted to take the blame. Today, 10 years later, they're pulling the same tricks, Sunoco is still here making the money, the federal government gave the city $35 million dollars but somehow the city says they’re still bankrupt which I don't understand. But they keep discovering new toxic substances in the soil still today. They found chromium in the well we used to drink out of and wash with in the plant. I'm here to complete what I started and that's what I feel about the Right to Know Committee. We want our due, we want some kind of justice, and we want compensation for what we've had to endure.


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