Just before his six-year anniversary at Hooker Chemical, Warren Dobson reached his breaking point. He had already seen dangerous practices while working in the plant’s fine chemical and caustic departments — particularly in the handling of a toxic chemical labeled C-56.
In April 1976, what he saw pushed him from eyewitness into the role of whistle-blower.
“For three days prior to the time I quit, they had let an eight-inch line just spew C-56 gas wastes into the atmosphere,” Dobson would say months later.
“The foreman I was with that day, we tried to patch it, but it was too profuse. We couldn’t even come near to getting it stopped and it just kept going.
“So I gave them my resignation on the basis of that and the way they had operated in the past — because it generally hadn’t changed from the time I started to the time left.”
With the help of a local activist, Dobson swore out an affidavit detailing Hooker’s practices for handling C-56, or hexachlorocyclopentadiene, which was a building block for lethal pesticides. His statement brought intense government scrutiny to the company’s activities and eventually led to what was, at the time, the largest cleanup in state history.
But it was not an easy decision for him.
Dobson was a 28-year-old Vietnam veteran with a wife and four children, and debts to be paid. But concern for his co-workers and those living near the plant spurred him to take a stand.
“People gotta realize that we’re going to have a situation around here soon where people are going to be really getting ill,” Dobson said at the time. “Generally, they don’t care how they operate as far as pollution goes because money, as in most corporations, I guess, is the biggest interest.”
When his affidavit became public, things started to make sense — the dead fish turning up in White Lake and the C-56 detected in residential wells near the plant. His account of barrels of C-56 waste being allowed to drain into the ground brought state investigators to the scene.
“It was a hill of drums,” said James Truchan, the former chief of environmental litigation for Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. “I mean, there were something like 20,000 drums filled with waste at the site. It was incredible — the amount of waste … .
“The fumes coming off of those drums were so bad that there weren’t any flies. There was nothing alive out there.”
Henry Roesler Jr., a former mayor of Montague, held nearly every government position in the city prior to his 2011 death. In an interview with The Detroit News months before he died, Roesler reflected on Dobson’s revelations.
“I don’t think people paid enough attention to (Dobson),” he said. “Probably, with he and (activist) Whit Dahlstrom, had all of us been a little more open to what they were saying we may have jumped on the problem sooner. But we didn’t.”
Dobson’s efforts put him in the crosshairs of those he was trying to protect. Hooker was one of the area’s largest employers and had, in a sense, built the small towns of Montague and neighboring Whitehall. A threat to the company was perceived as a threat to its residents.
“They think that I’m after their jobs, and I’m not,” Dobson said. “I don’t want that to happen and I don’t necessarily want to see Hooker leave.”
Those reactions hurt Dobson deeply, family members said, and he eventually turned to self-medication — something he had begun even before leaving Hooker. While working at the plant, Dobson had developed severe back pains.
“We’d uncover stashes of codeine cough syrup bottles under his truck seat,” a son, Wil Dobson, said. The cough syrup would be replaced by alcohol.
The elder Dobson’s problems had begun long before he arrived at Hooker. Family members said Vietnam changed him and he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Despite his personal problems, family members believe one of Dodson’s best attributes — his belief in justice — came through when it was needed.
“He believed if someone was doing something wrong, they need to stop doing it,” a daughter, Jennifer Wright, said about her father, who died in 1997 after a motorcycle accident.
Looking back, Wil Dobson said his father was ultimately made to feel like an outcast.
“Even when former Hooker workers started coming down with cancers … my dad was disappointed that no one ever came to him and said thank you for stopping this,” Wil Dodson said. “He was always very hurt by that.”
Wright’s 14-year-old son, Justin, was sitting with his eighth-grade social studies class at Montague Middle School recently, when the teacher showed a documentary on Hooker Chemical. And there, roughly six minutes into the video was a bearded Warren Dobson speaking out about the company’s reckless waste-handling practices.
“He said, ‘That’s my grandpa,’ ” she said.