There are many people getting rare cancers in this small Georgia town… But nobody knows why
Apr 27, 2019

In Waycross, there’s a tale about a boy who got a surprise while playing outside one day. He was behind his home on Brunel Street. This was back in the middle of the 20th century in a working-class neighborhood on the southeast side of the railroad yard. He got ahold of some matches. The boy was near a canal. These manmade creeks run all over town and keep the boggy, low-lying land from flooding. The boy was curious, mischievous. He struck a match, lit a piece of newspaper, and tossed it into the water. But when the burning paper touched the surface, it didn’t go out. The water burst into flames.


The girl is in such pain that her parents prop her up in bed so she won’t wince while eating her Chick-fil-A nuggets. It’s a Friday night at 14-year-old Lexi Crawford’s house. She lives on Brunel Street across the road from the 755-acre CSX Rice Yard, the largest railroad switching and maintenance facility in the Southeast. Over the last six weeks, Lexi, an otherwise healthy girl who is tall and slender with long hair of ever-changing colors, has gone nearly 10 times to the emergency room, complaining of back pain. Doctors have prescribed antibiotics, muscle relaxers, Tylenol. They’ve wondered if she’s faking it. Listen, her mother has told them, something’s going on. Lexi, an honor student on both the softball and riflery teams, has missed school repeatedly.
Lexi feels sick and rushes to the bathroom. Her parents, Cristy and Gary Rice, are in the living room watching TV when they hear a shriek. They find Lexi on the floor, her lips turning blue. She’s trembling.
Momma, please.
What is it, Alexis, what happened?
Lexi can hardly breathe. Her whole body seems to hurt. Gary picks her up and they race once again to the ER. This time, a doctor the family hasn’t met before is working. He orders a CT scan, her first ever. The scan shows that Lexi has cancer eating at her spine. The doctor isn’t sure what kind, so he directs them to Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, where the family learns it’s rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer that forms in muscles along bone. There’s no cure and no proven cause.
In the entire United States, only 350 people under the age of 19 are diagnosed with it every year, and only a dozen or so in all of Georgia. But incredibly, in and around Waycross, a spot with far less than one percent of the state’s population, Lexi was not alone. In a span of two months starting June 1, 2015, two other children were also diagnosed with RMS. A fourth family learned their daughter had Ewing sarcoma, an incurable cancer that forms in bone or soft tissue and also has no known cause. It’s diagnosed in fewer than 250 Americans under the age of 19 a year.

What was happening?

As news spread on social media, many in Waycross came to wonder if these cases constituted a cancer cluster. Two years earlier, a resident in her early 50s named Joan Tibor had formed a group called Silent Disaster to spread the word about pollution in town. The idea sprang from her own health issues: a clouded mind, trouble speaking, a mass on her left leg. With no answers from doctors in town, she researched contaminated properties and became convinced those parcels were essentially poisoning the people of Waycross.

In late 2015, the Georgia Department of Public Health said it could find no link among the children’s cancer cases. Then it backtracked and said more investigation was needed. In December, the federal government stepped in. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it would work alongside state officials in evaluating contamination at the railroad yard as well as an Atlanta Gas Light property that once held a power plant, which was torn down after closing 60 years ago.
At the heart of the inquiry was a simple question: Had toxins on the properties contaminated nearby land, and, if so, could they be dangerous to the public? But the implications of the investigation were vast. It forced the community to consider whether the industries that gave it life could now be taking lives back.

“There is no such thing as a ‘cancer cluster’ in Waycross.”

It was also a fraught question, and, in this age of American tribalism, your answer became a kind of litmus test. As stories about local contamination spread to out-of-town media outlets, the issue became, for Waycrossans, impossible to ignore. “There is no such thing as a ‘cancer cluster’ in Waycross,” an editorial in the Waycross Journal-Herald declared, before the federal investigation had even begun. “It’s a fabrication born of despairing parents and blown entirely out of proportion by an irresponsible broadcast media looking for ratings.” Residents confronted officials at public meetings. Folks got into squabbles on Facebook. It came up over beers at LL Creek bar. Other residents avoided the topic to keep the peace, the way families avoid talking Trump over Thanksgiving turkey. Some thought of loved ones who’d died from cancer and wondered if answers might finally come about why. Michelle Streat, 42. Barbara Fort, 70. Mattie Goble, 6. For me, Joyce Sharpe, 58. She was my mother.
Waycross sits in the southeastern corner of Georgia, where the hard dirt of the Atlantic Coastal Plain mixes with the hot sludge of the Okefenokee Swamp to form a swath of land so boggy that rumor once had it the high school sinks into the Earth an inch every year. In 1880, ground broke on a rail line from Waycross to Florida. Growth followed: hotels, shops, restaurants. As Waycross expanded, a vast canal network kept the low-lying land dry and carried runoff from the railroad and the AGL property. Waycross became an economic nucleus for a 60-mile radius. Postcards showed a thriving downtown with shops, restaurants, and ornate hotels. More industry followed: textiles, turpentine, processed food, munitions. A generation after the railroad came the Dixie Highway, bringing even more travelers and business. In 1956, a 21-year-old Elvis Presley headlined the City Auditorium, built in 1937 with funds from FDR’s New Deal.
But then I-95 came. Or, rather, didn’t come. The north-south interstate highway hugged the coast, bypassing Waycross and making residents here feel as if the future was bypassing it, too. Downtown started to fade in the mid-1970s after Hatcher Point Mall opened 2.5 miles away, on the far eastern edge of town. Other developments—importantly, the Walmart Supercenter—followed.
By the 1990s, when I was growing up here, downtown was limping into oblivion. Friends and I dared each other to trespass into abandoned buildings along historic Tebeau Street. Stagnation continued through the 2000s. The Great Recession made everything worse. In 2017, the U.S. Census estimated the median household income at $29,000—46 percent below the state median. Nearly one out of three Waycrossans lives below the poverty line. Since 1990, the city has lost residents steadily; today, its population stands at 14,000. Statistics like these have a clarifying effect on a young person’s decision about whether to stay. Maybe you could get a job at Memorial Satilla hospital, or build mobile homes at the Waycross industrial park, or try to get on at the railroad, cleaning cargo cars or working in the machine shop, but even that operation has scaled back through the years, now with about 900 employees.
Or you could just leave, which is what I did in 2013 a few months after my 26th birthday. I wanted to be a reporter. By then, both my parents, three of my grandparents, and several aunts and uncles had died. I felt untethered. I moved to Atlanta.
But I remained a proud native, as my parents had taught me to be, eager to evangelize about home. The place had always seemed mystical to me, with the swampy woods we roamed as kids and the lore of the Okefenokee’s great characters: gator wrestlers, shape-note singers, deep swamp explorers. My mom, Joyce, had been a tireless civic booster. She helped start the local Relay For Life and, like my father, Randy, was a perpetual volunteer involved in various local organizations, including the Okefenokee Heritage Center.
Just as Mom did, local officials are working hard to sell the community. If Mayor John Knox sees you at Jerry J’s, where buttery biscuits bleed through paper bags and slow hearts, he’ll remind you not to move away. Downtown is seeing signs of a halting renewal: Kingsland developer Bill Gross completed a multimillion-dollar project to transform the long-dilapidated Ware Hotel into an apartment building; another abandoned hotel, the Phoenix, is now headquarters of the Jones Company, which started the Flash Foods gas station chain; and the old Elks club building, which housed many failed restaurants, finally has a steady tenant in—of all things—a sushi place.
News of the cancers interrupted this narrative of renewal. The truth was, in the Waycross-Ware County area’s long lust for industrialization, it had become dirty. On Georgia’s list of the most contaminated sites in the state, Ware has had nine, with cleanup still ongoing at six. Another site was in recent years scrutinized under the federal Superfund program, which works to remediate the most contaminated grounds in the U.S. The legacy of contamination is hiding in plain sight here, from the shuttered operations rusting on polluted land to the less visible, like the nearly 200 lawsuits by former railroad workers filling boxes at the clerk of court’s office. It’s also hidden from view, permeating the dirt silently—a few hundred feet from Lexi Crawford’s house.

Summer 2016

It’s another painfully hot afternoon in Waycross, where the swamp keeps everything sticky. Here at Lexi’s house, the AC is out; a window unit hisses futilely. Cristy just had to rush one of her three girls off to camp. Lexi, the oldest, is on the couch. The teenager’s dark eyes are lost in a cellphone. Her silky black tresses are a wig, after chemotherapy made her own hair fall out in the bathtub. Lexi had asked Cristy to help wash it, because of the pain and nausea, and made Cristy show her every handful, so she could see what she was losing.
From the start, doctors said Lexi’s stage-four cancer has a 10 percent cure rate. The long odds have left Cristy and Gary, both in their 30s, confounded and overwhelmed. Gary prays to be given cancer instead. Cristy has stopped going to church because she’s so busy with Lexi’s treatment, though her anger with God will later grow. Gary tries to keep his mind on his work as a truck driver. In his free time, he hunts arrowheads. They accumulate on the wood railing by the backdoor.
Lexi was the first local child diagnosed with RMS, on June 1, 2015. Cristy was only passingly aware of Silent Disaster, Tibor’s group. But after Cristy posted the news about Lexi on Facebook, group members inundated her with messages. They wanted to talk about the railroad. Cristy didn’t know about the pollution there and, honestly, couldn’t muster the energy to much care. She was too busy making the 80-mile drive to Jacksonville to be with Lexi during chemo. In the rare moments Cristy could sit alone and reflect, she worried more about the result of cancer than the cause.
Then, Cristy heard about the other kids. A two-year-old boy named Harris Lott, who lived three miles northeast of Lexi, was diagnosed with RMS in July—just weeks after Lexi. Then, a month later, the same news was delivered to the family of five-year-old Gage Walker, who lived in neighboring Brantley County but had spent his first two years in Waycross. A five-year-old girl named Raylee Metts was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma; Raylee’s family lived in the Manor community about 15 miles from the center of Waycross. Around that time, Gary told Cristy a tale he’d heard from an elderly neighbor about the boy lighting a canal on fire.
In 2008, a few weeks after my father died of a heart attack, Mom learned she had ocular melanoma, skin cancer in the eye, diagnosed in only 2,500 Americans a year. Radiation worked, for four years, until the cancer spread to her liver. I don’t recall hearing back then about pollution in Waycross. And I don’t remember Mom fretting much about what could’ve made her sick. She’d also had breast cancer a few years earlier. Like Lexi’s mom, she was far more concerned with the consequences than the cause. I could see that in her face at 2:30 in the morning when she’d hobble out of her room, unable to sleep. In December, Mom checked into the hospital. The doctor said her organs were failing.
He said I have two weeks to live, she told me, terror in her eyes.
He was wrong. Five days later, we sat by her bed as she lay unconscious. My aunt Josie, Mom’s twin, held her hand and said, Lord, Lord, Lord, Joyce, I love you. All I can remember saying is that I loved her.
Afterward, my brother, Jonathan, and I slouched against the wall in the tiled hallway, dumbstruck that our parents were gone so soon. I was 26, he 28. We knew one thing—it did no good to wonder why Mom got a rare cancer. How would an answer help us anyway?

Nihlia Griffin found out a decade ago she had breast cancer. She underwent an aggressive form of chemo that nurses called the Red Devil because it turns your bodily fluids crimson. Griffin has short, silver hair, loves to hit the gas in her Dodge Challenger. Today, her cancer is gone, thanks to treatment and a double mastectomy. She’s proud she beat the disease but remains shaken by not knowing what caused it. She started researching environmental contamination and found plenty around Waycross, her hometown. When Silent Disaster was formed, she became one of its most vocal members. The group says it has a few dozen regularly active members, enough to make lots of noise. Today, Griffin and I are riding from one polluted site to another, on the kind of tour no Chamber of Commerce would ever sanction.
We head for the site that helped spur the founding of Silent Disaster. Along the way, we drive down South Georgia Parkway, passing the Gaines Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rollin’ Rubber used tire shop, Edd’s Package, the grass lot where a character known to locals only as the Peanut Man hawked slow-cooked gold until he fell ill a couple years ago.
Griffin and I stop at the old Seven Out operation on Francis Street, at the south edge of downtown, abutting the railroad yard. Seven Out, which opened in 2002, was a wastewater treatment company that took tanks of contaminated water from industrial customers. The company’s service was to remove toxins, compress the resulting sludge into a solid form, dry it, and send it to a landfill. The treated water was released into Waycross’s wastewater system. But the city and company had disputes over whether Seven Out was properly treating water before releasing it. On March 1, 2004, the company stopped discharging. Later that year, the company moved off the site, leaving containers—some with the capacity to hold 44,000 gallons—with polluted water still inside, according to the EPA, which was asked by Georgia EPD to evaluate the property to determine if waste needed to be removed. EPA tests at the property revealed the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a group of chemicals that result from burning organic materials. In high concentrations, PAHs can cause skin irritation, cancer, and other ailments. The EPA initiated what it called an “emergency” cleanup under the federal Superfund program on January 27, 2005, after wastewater was seen spilling off the property into a drainage ditch that emptied into the canal system. The EPA had crews remove 350,000 gallons of waste.
The mess at Seven Out was not exactly public knowledge. For years, the Waycross Journal-Herald didn’t cover it. It was Joan Tibor, Silent Disaster’s founder, who raised the alarm in 2013.....