I met Dieter in May of 1996. At that time my students and I were trying to put together the pieces of Garbage, Gangsters, and Greed. Dieter was blowing the whistle about a dump at the Orange County Park in Montgomery, and county legislator Tom Pahucki and Orange Environment’s Michael Edelstein thought it would be a good idea for Dieter and me to talk and compare notes.
Dieter called me and introduced himself on a Sunday morning. He told me that he worked on the Orange County Landfill as a bulldozer operator from 1988 to 1992, and that he had witnessed huge quantities of toxic material being dumped there illegally. He said he complained to his bosses and to authorities about the violations at the landfill, and that as a reward, they stopped giving him the pay raises to which he was entitled. They then transferred him out to the County DPW garage where he ended up reporting more environmental violations, and then to the Orange County Park where he claimed the County was operating an illegal landfill near the sixth fairway.
So began our relationship, over many such phone conversations about toxic waste, organized crime, and government corruption. Our long talks quickly turned into friendship. Dieter loved coming over to the house to chat and have a few beers. He loved our daughter, Sadie, and brought her stuffed animals, and he gave her some of the arrow heads he loved to find and collect. He took Sadie fishing, and he once prepared us a delicious meal of freshly road-killed pheasant.
But most of our time we kept on about exposing the dumping. Dieter had seen it all, and was deeply affected by it. He loved the outdoors, and could not understand how people could knowingly pollute the land and water for profit. He was desperate to do everything he could to make things right, even if that meant appearing on tape and becoming part of our documentary. Dieter did not like the spotlight, and he did not like the idea of being recorded, but he did it anyway because he thought it would help our cause.
Inevitably, he suffered for it. Dieter was already being hounded by his bosses for blowing the whistle on activities at the landfill and at the DPW garage. When 60 Minutes had come to Middletown High School a couple of years earlier to interview students who had worked on our documentaries, they also visited Dieter who told them about the illegal dumping at the landfill. The County knew all about Dieter’s cooperation. And they knew that Dieter had called the DEC to complain, and that he had called the NY State Department of Health to ask about cancer concerns among park workers. The State employees who took his calls had told Dieter’s bosses the same day, and the bosses made sure that Dieter got the message that he should just keep his mouth shut.
He received threats to his life. A truck driver tried to run him off the road. His supervisors called him a professional troublemaker; his coworkers kept their distance from him. This only made him more determined. He got back in their faces and told them that he would tell the world about the “tomb,” a hidden chemical dump at the county park that had been covered over with a concrete slab. He was bluffing. Only the old timers at the park knew where the tomb was, and they were not about to tell Dieter. They were too frightened, even though the contaminated water was making some of them sick.
In school, my students and I were trying to practice a strategy known as “civic courage.” It means behaving exactly as if you were a practicing citizen in a real democracy. It means going to meetings and speaking truth to power and taking responsibility for the welfare of the community. Like Dieter’s bluff about the tomb, civic courage is a bluff as well. The key words in the definition are as if, because we know that our democracy is becoming more myth than reality, and that power moves on stealthy, filthy feet outside of public view. The practitioner of civic courage goes through all of the motions for this very reason, in an effort to expose the undemocratic contradictions built into the system.
To all of us who worked with Dieter at the time, he was the embodiment of civic courage. Like Dutch Smith, Stan Greenberg, Armondo Bilancione, and others, he was willing to risk his job, and maybe even his life, to bear witness to the truth. For every whistle blower like Dieter, there were dozens who said nothing, who kept their heads down and their mouths closed, no matter how ugly or destructive the acts they witnessed on the job.
Our society is ambivalent about whistle blowers. On the one hand, we claim to admire them. But on the other, we despise what they do. Consider Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who is now a fugitive from the United States. A recent survey shows that 49% of Americans consider Snowden a hero, while 51% consider him “more of a traitor,” even though it is now clear that he opened our eyes to the enormity of our government’s illegal and immoral surveillance system. That is the way it goes with whistle blowers. You can open people’s eyes to the poisoning of their land and water, and some of them will hate you for it. Henrik Ibsen understood that in 1882 when he wrote An Enemy of the People.
Dieter knew that the only thing he had to gain when he went on tape for our documentary was an opportunity to set the record straight: a chance to alert the public that crimes had been committed, and that these crimes represented a direct threat to our health. It was the same reason he cooperated with 60 Minutes when they came to town to produce the segment that they never aired.
He knew he was putting himself at risk when he spoke openly about Lou Heimbach touring the landfill every week in his limo even when he was no longer county executive, or of mobsters handing out turkeys and bottles of whisky to state troopers and landfill operators at Christmas, or of 55 gallon drums of spoiled lead highway paint dumped into the wetlands near the DPW garage, or the toxic industrial sludge that was dumped into the black dirt near Pine Island, or the large, working, secret landfill that was maintained at the County Park to take in illegal toxins and medical waste when the police were watching the County Landfill on the other side of town.
I believe that Dieter’s whistle blowing contributed to his difficulties these last few years. He most likely would have had an easier time of it had he not crossed so many powerful people in Orange County. Ironically, those same people continue to hold important positions and win prestigious awards. Dieter received no awards for his selfless acts of civic courage. I like to think, however, that when Dieter drew his last breath, his conscience was clear, and he knew that he had performed his civic and moral duty. Dieter is gone, but the poisons he warned us about are still percolating in the landfill, the black dirt, the wetland near the DPW, and the park. Hopefully, these toxic time bombs will be attended to someday, and when the enormity of these environmental crimes finally comes to light, Dieter will be given the honor he so rightfully deserves.