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For This Rogue Exterminator, Nothing Was Too Deadly

Environment: He went after vermin with a vengeance, delighting clients and poisoning their homes. Now taxpayers will spend millions to clean up contamination, and he'll spend 6 years in prison.


MOSS POINT, Miss. — To his many customers, exterminator Paul Walls Sr. made but one claim about the cola-colored bug spray he peddled from the back of his truck: "It kills them all," he'd say in a near whisper, "and they don't come back."

He was right about that. In small towns along Mississippi's southeastern coast, Walls became celebrated for his "cotton poison," a mysterious, odd-smelling concoction that obliterated roaches and anything else that slithered or crawled. Only later, after Walls was arrested, did his customers discover that it can kill people too.

Walls' pesticide business was shut down last fall after federal agents--responding to complaints from competing exterminators--discovered he was illegally using methyl parathion, a neurotoxin so lethal it is sometimes used in suicides in Europe. But by then, Walls and a business associate, a local preacher named Dock Eatman Jr., had sprayed poison into scores of homes, motel rooms, restaurants and day-care centers. In the process, officials say, they helped launch what could soon become one of the decade's costliest environmental disasters, with consequences that are only now being fully realized.

Today, more than nine months after Walls and Eatman were arrested, 1,213 Mississippians remain exiled from their homes because of toxins that seeped into floorboards and clung to fibers and plastics. The interiors of nearly 500 buildings are being stripped to the studs and rebuilt at U.S. taxpayers' expense. Trailer homes are being demolished. Furniture, carpet and appliances are being replaced. No one has died, but dozens of people have complained of flu-like symptoms while others are worried about future health problems from a pesticide whose long-term effects are not fully known.

The $22 million spent so far is about half the $40 million the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects to spend this year to clean up damage and compensate evacuees.

"It's unparalleled," said Hagan Thompson, a spokesman for the EPA's Region IV in Atlanta. "We've never seen a case of this magnitude, affecting so many people and costing so much money."

Batches of methyl parathion that originated in the Deep South have apparently been carried north by amateur exterminators who have created a web of contamination that extends to Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. In Chicago alone, the EPA is expected to spend $20 million to clean up after Reuben Brown, a retired butcher who sprayed hundreds of homes and apartments with what clients called "the Mississippi stuff."

Nationwide, the illegal pesticide-slinging could cost taxpayers $100 million under the federal hazardous waste cleanup program known as Superfund.

There have been complaints of opportunism of some homeowners.

The government, which promised to shoulder the cost of removing and replacing contaminated material, is paying as much as $40,000 to rebuild shanties that were on the verge of collapse. At one such house, a pink and purple cottage with a rotting porch and sagging roof, workers struggled to find beams sturdy enough to support new panel walls. But the elderly owner insisted on a special textured ceiling speckled with gold glitter.

"Some people sprayed the stuff in their own houses, and now they're trying to collect," said Fernando Mann, a Moss Point man who watched from his porch recently as construction crews worked on a contaminated house next door. "Those two [Walls and Eatman] weren't the only ones doing it, just the only ones who got caught."

Methyl parathion is marketed under several trade names and used primarily by farmers as a powerful and inexpensive control for boll weevils and other cotton pests. It is relatively safe if used outdoors because it breaks down into harmless compounds after several days of direct sunlight. But indoors, it can remain deadly for months or even years.

Despite its extreme toxicity--a teaspoon can kill--no deaths have been reported. But medical tests have found scores of people with elevated levels of methyl parathion in their blood, and many others have experienced symptoms from nausea and dizziness to breathing difficulties.

Since November, six black-market exterminators have been arrested and five convicted, including Walls, 62, who was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison--the longest continuous prison term assigned for a purely environmental offense.

A former pipe fitter who is described by his lawyer as partially deaf and illiterate, Walls started his door-to-door home pesticide business after acquiring a commercial license to buy methyl parathion for use on crops. His own words and those of his lawyer, James Hull, paint a portrait of a simple man who believed that becoming an exterminator would make him important.

"I could go somewhere I'd never been before, meet people I never met before," he testified at his trial. "I had no idea it would hurt anyone. That's God's truth."

But even an illiterate man could not have missed the large skull and crossbones on the label, EPA officials say.

According to Hull, Walls stumbled onto methyl parathion as the stunningly lethal, no-name bug spray used to treat roaches in the New Orleans boarding house where he once lived. Walls never forgot the distinctive color and smell, and he became excited years later when he came across the compound in Mississippi.

With prices that rarely topped $40 per house, he undercut established pesticide companies and developed a large and loyal following in poor and working-class neighborhoods of Moss Point and Pascagoula. People liked his gentle, soft-spoken manner and raved about his product.

"The stuff really did get rid of the roaches," said Mann, who shared a house that was treated with methyl parathion.

EPA spokesmen noted the Danish manufacturers of methyl parathion have agreed to give the pesticide a strong, caustic odor to make it less likely that anyone would use it in a home.

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