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This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the July 16, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
On Binghamton & Erin Brockovich
Letter from the Lake — Wayne County, Pennsylvania:
Still no cell phone coverage here in the remote reaches of northeastern
Pennsylvania. The real estate boom seems to have hit (our neighbor
to the left has his three-bedroom cabin with 100-foot of Wrighter
Lake frontage on the market for $235,000). The nearest retail store
to the south — an old yellow school bus turned into a second-hand
furniture store known as Bob’s Bargain Bus — has been converted
into a gas station, country store, and ice cream shop known as Arlo’s.
And even some of the bad road that used to separate this spring-fed
lake, nearly 2,000 feet in elevation, from the ravages of most 21st
century development below it has been replaced with sparkling new
But even if the hordes do start showing up, they certainly will be
inconvenienced when that magic moment comes — the moment to reconnect,
to broker a deal, to check in with office, to touch base with their
people, to check their machine (as if there could be any important
messages since anyone important would certainly already have reached
them on the cell). When that moment comes their cell will simply be
silent — no signal, no roaming, no contact.
Not just at Wrighter Lake, but in the hills and vales on all sides
of it. The wired road warrior will begin losing his connection before
he even gets to Forest City, 14 or 15 miles to the south, and then
he will fall into a massive telecommunications black hole as he passes
through Orson and over the big hill on Oxbow Road and up to the lake.
It’s a shame, of course, because up here at the lake we have some
gossip to share — some celebrity gossip no less. It’s not from
the lake itself, of course, but rather from our nearest big city —
Binghamton, about 40 miles away, just over the border into upstate
Big city is a relative term, and when we talk about Binghamton, we
really mean the Triple Cities, Binghamton, Johnson City, and Endicott.
From Wrighter Lake it’s nearly an hour’s drive to this metropolis
(combined population of 200,000 or so), through the tiny hamlet of
Thompson and along winding Route 171 into Susquehanna and past the
point where the novelist John Gardner bought the farm in a motorcycle
accident in 1982.
From 171 you take I-81 north into Binghamton, the birthplace of Rod
Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone on television. Now Yoko
Ono has taken up residence in Binghamton, according to the gossip,
and reportedly has visited a Koi farm in Sydney, New York, about an
hour northeast of Binghamton, to purchase the exotic and colorful
From I-81 you swing west on Route 17, through Johnson City (once home
to the factories of the old Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company). Billy
Martin, the former New York Yankees player and manager, had retired
to a farm just outside Johnson City at the time of his death in a
car accident on Christmas Day, 1989, after an afternoon of hard drinking
with a buddy.
And then you pass into Endicott (once but no longer home to high-tech
manufacturing operations of IBM). Even Endicott has a celebrity son,
cartoonist Johnny Hart, creator of the B.C. strip.
But now a new celebrity is coming to town: Erin Brockovich, the environmental
researcher made famous by the movie starring Julia Roberts. Brockovich’s
California firm has joined with a Rochester-based firm to prepare
a suit on behalf of Endicott residents against IBM, which allegedly
allowed up to 55 acres of land to be contaminated by chemicals during
its operations there.
The talk has all the trappings of a classic Brockovich lawsuit. The
hometown daily newspaper, the Binghamton Evening Press (where I once
worked as a summer intern in the mid-1960s) has reported that "traces
of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds have been found in
indoor air samples of homes and businesses and in the Endicott water
Questionnaires have been distributed to anxious residents. Substantial
numbers of suspicious illnesses are being recalled from over the years
of the IBM operation. Even though the July 11 issue of Time Magazine’s
online edition raises serious doubts about the validity of Brockovich’s
approach ("junk science" is the headline), people in Endicott
are surely recalling her landmark case from the movie, with 600 residents
of a California town splitting a $333 million settlement.
Hometown heroes are coming back to aid their beleaguered town: Isaiah
Kacyvenski, whose father still lives in Endicott, went to Harvard,
where he studied environmental science, and now is a linebacker for
the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. He has come home to gather information
and to help out.
And Brockovich herself will be on hand in Endicott and "actively
involved," her people promise, as soon as she returns from a vacation
in Hawaii. With my feet up in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania,
I’m enjoying all this idle gossip. I’ll keep you posted, but not by
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