Keon writes book on history of Pine River Task Force

Jane Keon, a founding member of the Pine River Superfund Citizens Task Force has written a 290-page book about the group’s history. It’s available on in Kindle and paperback versions.

by Greg Nelson

Herald Editor

A founding member of the Pine River Superfund Citizens Task Force has been working for the past five years on a book that details the history of the group.

Jane Keon’s work has finally paid off with the publishing of “Tombstone Town.”

The 290-page book is subtitled, “Left for dead, marked with a tombstone, a toxic town fights back.”

The tombstone reference comes from the monument that was placed at the entrance of the former Velsicol Chemical Co. plant site in St. Louis warning people not to enter the 52-acre parcel.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to remove the tombstone, which is now on display at the St. Louis Area Historical Museum.

Keon is a lifelong resident of Gratiot County, graduating from Alma High School in 1966. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from Michigan State University.

Keon has had a varied career, working for several newspapers as a reporter and free lance writer, served as a part-time writing instructor at Alma College and was co-owner of The Booke Shoppe in Alma.

Now retired, she does volunteer work not only for the task force but also the Friends of the Pine River, Healthy Pine River and St. Mary’s School.

Keon, who served as task force chairperson for several years and is now its secretary, first became interested in getting involved in the yet to be formed task force after attending a community meeting in October 1997 in St. Louis and learning how much DDT was in the river behind the city’s municipal dam.

“The EPA said it usually cleaned sediment if it was above 225 parts per million DDT, and the samples they were taking from the mud behind the dam ranged from 36,000 to 42,000 parts per million,” she said. “I knew the river could never clean itself naturally.

“The EPA offered a sign-up sheet for those who wanted to form a Community Advisory Group and I signed up. We met in December of 1997 to find out how to become an EPA CAG and organized ourselves in January 1998.”

She first started thinking about writing a book about the group several years ago when all of the task force’s history documents were placed in a repository at the Alma College Library in 2003.

“I didn’t start writing until 2010,” Keon said. “Originally, I though I’d write about the first 10 years of our group but instead I wrote about the first 16 years. We are about to enter our 19th year as the Pine River Superfund Citizens Task Force. We called ourselves a task force because we intended to do the tasks of overseeing the cleanups and move on to our ordinary lives. We thought it might take us five years.”

Her book is a “personal perspective” of what the group has done.

It covers the cleanups of the radioactive “Breckenridge Site” east of St. Louis, the cleanup of Horse Creek that flows into the Pine River, the nearly $100 million cleanup of the Pine River adjacent to the chemical plant in St. Louis, a dead bird study that found robins were dying from acute DDT poisoning, and the group’s efforts to convince the EPA that the plant site was leaking toxic chemicals into the river, which members were able to do.

“I hope the book will be valuable for its history, and I also hope it will help other citizen groups around the country who are trying to deal with the U.S. Department of Justice, the EPA, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency and other federal and state agencies,” Keon said.

During its history the task force has had many accomplishments.

“If we hadn’t field a claim in the Fruit of the Loom bankruptcy settlement there would have been no money in the trust fund for the city of St. Louis to draw up to jumpstart their new water system,” Keon noted.

That alone netted the city more than $25 million.

“If we hadn’t filed a claim in the Oxford bankruptcy settlement, after trying to get by the state and federal governments to do so, we never would have won almost for $100,000 to use for smaller projects that our CAG has undertaken,” she said. “If we hadn’t written a letter to the DOJ asking for some of the money from the fine the Total refinery had to pay the U.S. Treasury, Horse Creek wouldn’t have been cleaned and the city of Alma wouldn’t have had the funds to help Alma Iron and Metal over off the river.

“Over the years I’ve told people our group had no idea what it’s doing, and that’s the truth, but we try things anyway and some of them are successful.”

Keon was never interested in the law, politics, and bureaucracy, and “avoided science as much as possible during my school years.”

“I’ve learned, out of necessity, some chemistry and biology, some political tactics and bureaucratic tricks, and I’ve stood before a judge in federal bankruptcy court,” she said. “My book recounts my willingness, along with many others, to take whatever stops are necessary to restore out land and water, and to reverse the reputation of St. Louis, Michigan as Toxic Town U.S.A.”

The book is available at The Kindle edition is $4.99 while the paperback version is $12.99.