17 December 2008

Arsenic is Good for You! (the play)

Arsenic is Good for You! is an Augusto Boal style (Theatre of the Oppressed) style production. The play was developed by a team of students in my Politics of Technical Decisions class, including Anne Michaud, Scott Parini, Samantha Sheble, and Anthony Willard.

The towns of Butte, Anaconda, and Opportunity are located in the upper Clark Fork River basin of western Montana--in the midst of America's largest Superfund site.

Around the year 1900, the region was the world’s leading copper producer. Smelters spread great quantities of sulfuric acid, arsenic, and heavy metals throughout the upper Clark Fork River valley--60,000 pounds per day during peak years.

Despite common medical knowledge that arsenic was harmful, Copper Kings such as Marcus Daly and William Clark maintained that arsenic was good for human health—-and especially good for women’s complexions!

Of course, Daly and Clark did not spend much time in Butte or Anaconda. Daly preferred his horse farm near Hamilton, Montana, while Clark preferred his mansion “on the avenue, Fifth Avenue” in New York City.

Act I

Butte children (played by Willard and Michaud)thank Marcus Daly for the breakfast they are about to receive:

Mother (played by Sheble) serves up the Arsenic Flakes:

When the fussy children refuse to eat, Uncle Marcus (played by Parini) convince them that "Arsenic is good for you!"

Act II
Local residents ask, “Why did the Environmental Protection Agency set our arsenic action levels – the level at which arsenic will be cleaned up from residential areas – at 250 parts per million?” Certainly, this seems particularly unjust when, nationwide, the agency has typically set arsenic action levels at 25 to 50 parts per million. Why is it that our communities have levels that are five to ten times higher than the national norm?

The answer: the notorious piglet study. In 2003, the Arco (the corporation legally responsible for our Superfund site) funded a study by a veterinarian. The vet fed arsenic-laced Butte soil to the little pigs for 12 days. The little piggies were just fine, therefore Arco concluded that local arsenic levels would not harm people over the course of their lifetime.

A little piggy (played by Michaud) eats its arsenic:

Arco's veterinarian (played by Willard) explains that 250 ppm arsenic is perfectly safe--when fed to a piglet for 12 days:

A nice Gothic couple (played by Parini and Sheble) prepare to work in their garden:

They dig a few carrots. Mmmm... yummy & juicy:

And deadly:

The 2003 piglet study – funded by Arco – was accepted by the Enivronmental Protection Agency as evidence that human exposure to arsenic levels of 250 parts per million would not be harmful. Remember after 12 days – yes, you heard right, twelve days – the little piggies were just fine!

I’m sure Marcus Daly and William Clark were careful never to spend more than 12 consecutive days in Butte! The piglet study is over. The arsenic action level has been set. Is there any going back? Let’s ask Arco! Let’s ask the EPA!

Anaconda (Parini) and Butte (Michaud) meet on the street: Hi Butte, how's she goin'? Hey, An-da-con-da, good'n'you? She's gotta go! Hear about that nice Gothic couple that died? No, what happened? Ar-sen-ic poisoning!

As they chat, Arco surreptitiously chains them together--with a 250 ppm ball of arsenic attached:

They prepare to go on their way: Tap 'er light, Butte! You betcha, An-da-con-da! But they find that they are chained together and now share a common problem & a common destiny:

They ask the EPA for help, but are told "Go away! Arco said it was safe, the decision has been made, and there is no help for you:"

After the second performance of Act III, spectators became spect-actors taking on roles in the play and shifting the story in unexpected ways.

Justin Ringsak (left) steps in as Arco and makes all the usual excuses: Arco didn't know there was environmental liability when it bought the Anaconda Copper Mining company; Arco has given the towns a golf course and ball fields, what more could it do?; Arco has already spent too much money locally, and has mere billions in profits to work with:

Shawn Crowe (right) substitutes for EPA and explains that the decision was made after careful judgment, and the public's chance to weigh in is long past:

Dick Gibson (right) becomes Butte and calls "BS." The public needs to know about the flimsy basis for the arsenic decision and the potential long-term health hazard:

Together, the new cast goes round and round about the issue:

Then Mary Kay Craig gets chained up as Anaconda:

She points out that Butte and Anaconda, working together, can pressure the agency to protect public health. She also points out a crucial problem: EPA & Arco often deal directly with one another & cut the public out of deliberation & decision-making processes. Furthermore, when EPA & Arco are forced to deal with public concerns, they do so as remotely and with as little interaction as possible:

Although we cannot solve local concerns about human health in a short play, we can raise awareness and brainstorm strategies that might change our future. Stay tuned for Act IV...


A short video of "Arsenic is Good for You!" is available on the newspaper website for the Montana Standard.

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