November 25, 2017

Nelson Yoder remembers PBB protests

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COMINS — The straw and Styrofoam effigies that once hung on the junction at M-33 and County Road 608 are still intact in Nelson Yoder’s garage.

“I never dreamed of being a part of this thing,” Yoder said.

In 1974 polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) were accidentally put into the food supply by St. Louis-based Michigan Chemical Company. The company mistakenly sold feed bags containing PBB through Michigan Farm Bureau Services in 1973. The incident caused 500 Michigan farms to be quarantined, with livestock and food products ordered to be destroyed. Some of these items were buried in a pit in Elmer Township in 1978.

As a reporter for the Oscoda County News in 1978, Yoder was right in the thick of the controversy over whether or not the state should burn or bury cattle infected by PBBs in Elmer Township.

“I just love the drama of it now,” Yoder said. “But you never knew from one hour to the next what was going to happen.”

Yoder wrote the stories for the paper while owner Jim Davisson assisted with interviews and took photos. Davisson’s wife Judy also did all the typesetting for the paper.

“They didn’t believe in big government ramming something down your throat,” Yoder said. “(The paper) was independent.”

A 1976 Oscoda County News article states that the Oscoda County Board of Commissioners authorized the county prosecutor to take action against the state to stop the burial.

“We depended on the commission to take care of the problem,” Yoder said. “They made an attempt, but it fell through.”

Yoder and other residents decided to get involved. The PBB Action Committee was formed during a Sept. 15, 1977 meeting in the Mio AuSable Schools auditorium, according to a County News article. Yoder said he was on the committee and later became president after Charles Smith stepped down.

“It’s good to protest something you don’t approve of,” Yoder said. “The citizens here felt really put upon.”

A 1982 Oscoda County News retrospective article by Yoder states that 23rd Circuit Court Judge Allan C. Miller decided Sept. 29, 1977, that PBB-infected materials could be buried in the county as long as they were put in a 20-foot clay-lined pit.

Jars were put in businesses around town and bumper stickers were sold to collect donations to cover the group’s attorney fees, as it was represented by American Civil Liberties Union environmental attorney James Olson. The committee was expressly against the burial of the cattle and products, advocating for the items to be incinerated instead.

“It wouldn’t be put in the ground to get in the groundwater,” Yoder said of advocating incineration.

However, Yoder said state attorney Diane Carlson advised that incinerating the infected items would contaminate the air.

While a pit was already authorized in Kalkaska, things were different in Oscoda County because the residents had advanced knowledge of the state’s plans for a pit, according to Yoder.

“We should’ve actually organized a little earlier,” he said. “I think if we had and the state had known that, they might’ve been shipped off to Nevada earlier.”

Yoder said he knew the protests were getting heated when the Michigan State Police started arriving. On a good day, he said there may have been as many as 50 protesters present on the picket line. In the 1982 retrospective, Yoder said this came to a head April 28, 1978.

“By the morning of April 28, all points of access to Pennsylvania Crossing had been sealed off by state troopers,” Yoder states. “Some exclaimed it was the first time they had answered a problem where the law outnumbered the picketers.”

The article states that 14 protesters were arrested in the first week, but no violence broke out. Yoder’s neighbor Bill Bush created the effigies and the gallows, following the arrests. Bush would put up the effigies every morning and take them down at the end of the day to prevent them from being vandalized. Effigies included Michigan Gov. William Milliken, Department of Natural Resources Director Howard Tanner and Department of Agriculture Director B. Dale Ball.

Protests drew the attention of out-of-state media outlets from the Chicago Tribune to The New York Times to even the British Broadcasting Company. It also drew tourists.

“People would stop and come to the picket line just for something to do,” Yoder said.

Al and Hilda Green, some of the first Michigan residents to show symptoms of PBB poisoning, supported the cause to have the cattle incinerated, Yoder said. The committee also coordinated with a similar group in Reed City.

After one botched attempt to bury the cattle in another location in Elmer Township, the state moved to bury the cattle at a nearby site in August 1978.

“The stench of the spectre (sic) was carried as far away as M-33 and the Smith Lake area,” the article states. “Only Count Dracula or a Surrealist painter could have found the phenomena interesting and exciting.”

While the protests failed to keep the cattle from being buried, it did prevent the state from using more than one burial site. Yoder’s article states that the remaining contaminated items were shipped to Beatty, Nev., to be disposed of in a landfill.

“I don’t know what they did in Nevada,” Yoder said. “It was just a large disposal site that was already in operation,” Yoder said. “So people didn’t question them getting shipped to Beatty.”

Yoder said while the committee should still meet, many of the people from the era are now deceased.

“I mean, I can’t have a committee meeting with myself,” he said.

A regrouping of the committee may not be on the horizon, but Yoder thought its part in the protests near the pit should be commemorated in some way.

“I really believe there should be a historical marker there,” Yoder said.

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