Natalie Merchant's folksy college rock vocal is the perfect conduit for this bitter ballad about corporate negligence tearing apart the lives of helpless, ordinary people, inspired by the true story of a neighbourhood of 221 families completely destroyed by chemical contamination, resulting in President Jimmy Carter declaring a federal health emergency in what was supposed to be a dream community in Niagara Falls, New York.
10,000 Maniacs were hugely successful in their native US and around the world for a brief spell in the late 1980s thanks to their double-platinum album In My Tribe. Poison in the Well comes from their even more successful follow-up, Blind Man's Zoo.
Natalie Merchant's lyrics from the period typically tell small stories about big social issues - individuals caught up in a situation beyond their control. One of their breakthrough singles was What's the Matter Here?, a song about discovering that neighbours are abusing a child; on Blind Man's Zoo we meet an out-of-work mother struggling to look after her family in Dust Bowl and the son of a man killed in Vietnam wondering if his father died for nothing in The Big Parade.
In the lyrics of Poison in the Well, a helpless and fearful small town American Joe is exasperated by the claims of a negligent corporation's PR team, trivialising a local ecological disaster by saying "there's been a small spill / All that it amounts to is a tear in a salted sea / Someone's been a bit untidy / They'll have it cleaned up in a week".
Poison in the Well was inspired by the Love Canal scandal in New York state where a chemical company had dumped waste before selling the site, which was turned into a housing development and a school. 20 years later, it became clear that this had been a huge error of judgment as hundreds of people began to suffer illness and birth defects as a result of contaminated water
"I was writing about Hooker Chemical Company in Buffalo and the Southern Love Canal, which everyone looks at as ancient history now," she told Spin magazine in 1989. "And it's not ancient history where we live, because it's still very much in the press. It's a horrible event. Many people died of cancer. Many women to this day cannot conceive children, cannot stay pregnant. But who's responsible? Is it the government's responsibility to regulate where these people are dumping and how they dump and what's done with the site after they've dumped? Who's held accountable? Is it the company that buries it? Is it the company that manufactures this product that causes this waste?"
It's easy to imagine that stories like the Love Canal scandals are rare and that the resulting publicity stops them from happening again. And yet, rare as they are, time and again corporations are exposed for covering up environmental disasters, accidental or otherwise.
In 1988, a driver for South West Water in the UK accidentally dumped 20 tons of aluminium sulphate into the mains water supply to 20,000 homes in Cornwall in what became known as the Camelford Water Pollution incident. The authorities claimed that the water was safe to drink.
In Tallevast, Florida, in 2000, when Lockheed Martin took over the American Beryllium precision machine parts factory, they discovered that a whole neighbourhood had been drinking water from wells contaminated with beryllium dust for up to 38 years. The town's people were not informed and the truth did not begin to emerge for another three years.
In 2007, evidence emerged that Monsanto had been secretly dumping chemical waste into landfill in South Wales for decades. It wasn't until 2015 that they agreed to pay for the clean-up for what they described as their "alleged liability".
For more information on corporate scandal and whitewash, check out the website Corp Watch, which describes itself as "global movement for human rights, social justice, environmental sustainability, peace, corporate transparency and accountability".
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About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.