The sound always came first, a low buzz that grew and grew until it roared through the valley. Then the olive-colored plane appeared overhead, flying low. In its wake was a thick shower of oily droplets making a long, slow fall to the forested gullies below.
Kids on the Apache reservation back then chased the planes over gem-laden hills, past the flame-yellow salt cedars lining the banks of the Gila River. If they arrived ahead of the planes, they stood under the mysterious, oily rain, waiting for rainbows.
“We just played in it, drank the water with it in there, ate the food we hung out to dry covered in it,” said Mike Stevens, 62. “Didn’t know what it was.”
The planes were delivering a chemical cocktail with components similar to Agent Orange, the powerful herbicide that laid bare the jungles of Vietnam during the 1960s to allow American warplanes to peer into guerrilla encampments.
The compound, known as Silvex, was deployed as part of a little-known test effort from 1961 to 1972 to wipe out water-hungry vegetation on the San Carlos Apache Reservation, part of a larger effort by the federal government to protect scarce groundwater in the newly booming city of Phoenix.
The dioxin-laden herbicide was spread over a population of 10,000 for more than a decade. Now, half a century later, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is sending investigators to the reservation this month to find out exactly what was sprayed and what lingering effects it may have on one of the nation’s poorest Native American reservations.
“It’s in our air, our streams, our livestock,” said Charles Vargas, an activist on the reservation, 90 miles northeast of Phoenix. “This is fundamentally a crime, perpetrated on our people by the government, and no one’s ever had to answer for it.”