Death of a Hardened Optimist

The return of "Tales" after a six-month hiatus is bittersweet for me, since this column also marks the passing of Mark O'Connor, who was an unsung hero of Texas, a voice for its people and communities, a staunch defender of the environment, and a dear friend of mine.

Many of you won't even recognize his name, but the people in power at the state environmental regulatory agencies certainly did. Just the mere mention of his name could strike terror in them. They knew that if Mark O'Connor was on the scene, asking questions, looking over their shoulders, they had best be on their toes. If there were any discrepancies, any breach of regulations, O'Connor would sniff it out and expose it, usually in headlines or on the six o'clock news.

O'Connor wasn't a reporter, but he had many friends who were. That's how I came to know him. He discovered that I periodically wrote environmental stories for various newspapers and hounded me persistently, calling, faxing, e-mailing, until I finally sat down with him and listened to his story. And what a story he had to tell!

O'Connor, a slight, self-deprecating man with a keen Irish sense of humor, a mischievous grin, and the yappiest, most grating voice I've ever heard, was also the biggest man I've ever known. He lived his convictions. And those convictions, his belief that one must do what is right no matter the cost, cost him dearly. When he discovered his employer was poisoning an entire community in Bryan, Texas, and that children were literally dying, he did the right thing and blew the whistle. In fact, he did more than blow the whistle. He collected evidence, trespassing, as he said, "for a greater good," and stole into the company in the dark of night, with his Kodak Instamatic, and collected the evidence of wrongdoing, photocopied the documents that proved the company knew what it was doing, and turned it all over to the FBI.

O'Connor then canvassed the neighborhood near the plant, asking each household if anyone had experienced cancers or worse. He discovered 12 children near the plant who were born with horrific birth defects. When the state health agency wouldn't listen to him or do anything to help, he sought a lawyer for those families. He got down in the trenches with those who were affected, despite the fact that doing so caused him to lose his job, his home, and, consequently, his family. He found himself completely unemployable, which was a great source of despair for him. And yet, whenever someone called on him, needed his help on whatever environmental or civil rights front, he was there. And always at his own expense.

When O'Connor discovered that the lawyers who filed a class-action suit on behalf of the people of Bryan were cutting a bad deal with the operators of the plant, he sought other lawyers to fight the settlement. When he found no lawyer who would do such a thing, he didn't give up and accept the poor settlement. Instead, O'Connor high-tailed it over to the Texas A&M library near his home one weekend and studied the law himself. Then he marched on down to federal court in Houston, armed with nothing but some notes he had taken at the library and a legal brief he had written himself, and stood before a federal judge and opposing counsel in expensive suits who would receive 40 percent of the money in legal fees, and put a stop to the settlement payout. He forced the court to demand a more equitable plan for the people. Of course, O'Connor would never see a dime of the money.

This was typical of Mark O'Connor. He believed what he believed and fought for it to the bitter end, which came in the early morning hours of September 18, when, at just forty-one, he succumbed to a heart attack.

A few years ago during some kind of political brouhaha that had developed between friends on a private e-mail list called the Bobwahred, O'Connor, who also went by the nickname "Rainman," wrote a short autobiographical sketch to help a disillusioned reporter to realize that his seemingly vain attempts to make a difference through his articles, may, just in fact, make all the difference in the end. O'Connor's words tell his own story better than I could ever hope to:

Dear Dick,

I'm afraid that my autobiographical sketch leaves much to be desired in both the intelligence and accomplishment arenas, but it is my journey and I can do little but accept it. I was the eldest spawn of a strict Southern Baptist chemistry professor and a strict Lutheran school teacher who were both cloistered products of their small town Missouri upbringing. I was raised to know right from wrong, to accept Jesus Christ as my savior and to have pity for all those who didn't acknowledge this, as my merciful God would surely smite them down big time as the scum they were. I was taught to show tolerance towards all peoples unless they stepped out of the narrow confines of my definition of moral behavior, in which case I was to damn them loudly as the blasphemers they were. I was taught that my government was a benign, if sometimes inept, big brother who looked out for the safety of me and my fellow countrymen. I was taught that sex before marriage was a sure avenue to an afterlife spent broiling in an eternal South Texas summer and was left pretty much to my own devices when it came to wasting my seed upon the ground, but the Biblical implications clearly indicated this also was an area to be avoided at all costs. I was taught that the guy in the white hat always wins, good triumphs over evil, and justice in my country was sure, swift and true. I was taught not to pick my nose, scratch my nuts or to exhibit overindulgence in any aspect of my life.

Proudly sporting this protective armor of moral certitude, I ventured forth into the world to slay my dragons and claim the princess as my own. It was not long before my armor took on the appearance of a Rambler station wagon that had spent its 25-year existence cruising the salted roads of Michigan. At the same time, I began to experience a bad case of dry rot and jock itch from the inside. The more I scratched my nuts, the more the pieces of my rotting and rusted armor began to resemble a molting locust.

In 1974, at the ripe old age of 17, I scored high enough on the SATs to skip my senior year in high school and enter the Hallowed Halls of Higher Learning at the venerable Texas A&M University. I lasted a year and a half walking across the quad with my hair to my ass enduring the sneers and hatred of the corps turds for being different. I spent my summers doing construction work and soon decided that many of the men shoveling beside me in ditches seemed far wiser than most of my professors at A&M. In many ways I still believe that today. I had expected Academia to be an open forum for new and exciting ideas, to be a platform for debate. I expected to be confronted with new and different ideas about the world, about myself. What I got instead was regurgitated pap, rote spouted out by tired professors more interested in their next research grant than in their students. The politics and philosophy dished out at A&M were slightly right of Idi Amin and offered no room for dissension. After a year and a half, I'd had enough and chose to embark on the noble mission of being an honest working man. I had also started developing the unfortunate habit of trying to hide from myself, my dissatisfactions and my increasingly cynical view of the world with beer and drugs.

I am ashamed to say that during the period of your life when you were out trying to conquer new horizons and to better the world, I found myself lost without a clear path to follow. I worked job after job, ditch digger, telephone lineman, oilfield, construction, electrician, cable lineman. I tried going back to school three different times with increasingly less success each time. I did alright academically, I just couldn't make myself accept that this type of higher education amounted to anything worthwhile.

By the time I reached 30 I discovered that I had obtained no real skills and that the drinking and drugging had reached the point to where I was practically unemployable anyway. It took me another year to get to the point where I was ready to try and sober up. That was almost eight years ago and so far it seems to be holding.

Anyway, the point to all of that is that I have wasted many years wallowing in self-indulgent self pity, disillusionment and confusion. My political awakening, if you want to call it that, came as a result of the work I was doing in environmental research and development. I was working on trying to develop new technologies for treating toxic wastes and had obtained several patents as a result. In the fall of 1989 we were approached by a local Bryan pesticide manufacturing company, Elf Atochem, to run some pilot tests of our water treatment equipment on some of their wastewater. I worked at the plant for about three months and, while there, discovered that company employees were pumping water highly contaminated with pesticides into a lake adjacent to their property. The environmental engineer refused to do anything about it, so I snuck a camera onsite one evening and took pictures of some of what they were doing. Corporate officials didn't even have a desire to look at the photos and made it clear that they also weren't going to do anything to stop the practice.

So I got pissed and went to the FBI and the EPA and initiated a federal criminal investigation that lasted about two years. I also began to research the company's environmental history and discovered that the Texas Air Control Board knew, from their own testing, that extremely high levels of arsenic were inside people's homes and had chosen to walk away from it without warning the residents or taking any meaningful action against the company. Of course the fact that the woman who had been chief attorney for the Air Board was now working for Fulbright & Jaworski who was representing the company didn't have anything to do with it. The fact that the company basically bribed city of Bryan officials to look the other way had no influence on events. The fact that the areas affected most by the contamination were chiefly low-income, minority neighborhoods also had nothing to do with the cover up. The fact that the U.S. Attorney in Houston used to work for Vinson & Elkins, the law firm now representing the company, has got nothing to do with her office quashing the FBI criminal investigation.

You see, as stupid as it sounds, when I began the Atochem investigation I still naively believed that if I could just prove to the government officials what was going on, that they would do something about it. I believed that, inept as they may be, the regulatory and law enforcement agencies were really there to protect the little man. It has been a rude awakening for me to discover that nothing is further from the truth. I have learned that the main reason for the existence of the environmental agencies is to run interference for and protect large industry, even if it means the poisoning of innocent citizens. I have learned that politics and money can adversely influence the criminal justice system to the point where the guilty walk and the innocent are persecuted. I have learned that, in Texas in 1996 if you are black or poor you are shit and you are shit out of luck if you expect your government to protect you. I have learned the extent to which corporations and politicians will go, the lying, cheating and stealing that takes place to cover their own asses.

The Atochem situation got me interested in similar issues around the state. I have been trying to help citizens in Commerce fight a company and various state and federal agencies over pesticide contamination in their neighborhoods. I have been helping folks fight to get Pilgrim's Pride to clean up their act in East Texas. I have been helping folks in a small local community fight Texas A&M from moving in a huge hog farm. I have been helping folks in Midlothian fight cement kilns burning hazardous waste and folks in Corsicana trying to stop a rendering plant from moving into their neighborhood.

All of these fights, especially the inexcusable resistance offered by the environmental regulatory agencies, wear on me. I know exactly what you mean now when you talk about the loss of hope, the meaninglessness of trying to change a system that can't be changed. On the other hand, I have to keep believing that someone has to wage the war, that someone has to keep trying to speak out, that someone has to let the impacted citizens know that if they expect change in any form they must look out for themselves and not trust the government to do jack shit to help them. There have been some minor wins. The Elf Atochem plant in Bryan "voluntarily" shut down. I believe that issue played a major role in three city officials and a county judge either leaving town or losing reelection.

There is a backlash against the TNRCC [Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the state environmental protection agency] swelling in Texas and a lot of it is coming from Republicans who are sick and tired of having their neighborhoods contaminated. I do think that politicians are beginning to get the message that, if they want to get reelected, they had better start listening to these issues rather than continuing to blindly run cover for their corporate buddies. Is this really doing anything to change the system? Is this really altering, in any meaningful way, the balance of power that exists with wealthy corporations buying off our "leaders"? Probably not, but maybe it is changing things for the better in some small way. If I can change things, even a tiny bit, and a thousand other folks can do the same, isn't it possible that the cumulative effect can begin to become noticeable? I don't know. And in my confusion and lack of true belief that anything can really matter, I choose to try and keep fighting anyway. I want to believe, knowing full well how naive that may be, so I choose to believe. Maybe a month from now will find me having given up all hope. Then again, maybe a month from now will find me having accomplished just enough of a change to keep me running and hoping for another month. That's sort of the level I'm operating on right now.

I understand full well your frustration and cynicism derived from learning the realities of how things work in this country. I also have come to tears in my own frustrations. Maybe there are no answers. Maybe there is nothing we can do. On the other hand, if you truly believed that with all your heart and soul, I would contend that you wouldn't be wasting your time trying to publicize some of what you see going on, you wouldn't care whether other people opened their eyes or not. The fact that you keep going in these endeavors tells me perhaps you haven't given up hope to the extent you claim.

Perhaps there is still a small part of that naivete left over from your social reformer days. Perhaps that part of you can understand and forgive the same pissing-in-the-wind behavior on my part. I don't know. I'll get up tomorrow morning, put on my pants and try and get by one more day. If I'm accomplishing nothing else, at least I didn't cop out today, at least I tried, and as fruitless as it all may end up, it is that which I choose to try and pass on to my son.

Mark O'Connor

O'Connor leaves behind a nine-year-old son.
He will be greatly missed.
Some of O'Connor's writings can be found on the Internet at:
Carol Countryman is a freelance troublemaker in Tool, Texas.

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