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Outside/In: 'The Fox,' 1970s Environmental Vigilante

In the late '60s, a soap factory in suburban Illinois discovered one of its outflow pipes had been intentionally clogged by an industrial saboteur. Does environmental damage ever demand radical action? And when does environmental protest cross the line and become eco-terrorism?

Editor's note: This episode first aired in February 2017.

In a suburb of Chicago, there is a Dial soap factory.

One day in 1969, a pipe that carried industrial waste out of the plant got clogged and started to back up, causing the factory to shut down. When the employees located the problem they realized the pipe was full of debris that had been mixed with concrete.

By one account, it was as much as seven tons of junk clogging up the works.

Next to the pipe was a sign, which said something along the lines of: “Armour-Dial pollutes our water.” (Back then, Dial was still a subsidiary of the meat-packing company Armour.)

The sign was autographed “the Fox.” The signature might have been referencing the river that this sludge was polluting — the Fox River — but it came to be a pseudonym, a calling card for a mysterious environmental vigilante.

Seven years earlier, the state of Illinois passed a law that was supposed to limit the chemicals that factories like this could dump into rivers and lakes, but Armour-Dial largely ignored it. Now, somebody was calling them out on it; under the cover of darkness, somebody had come to teach these companies a lesson.

This protest didn’t bankrupt Armour-Dial, but it was just the beginning of a years-long campaign that this anonymous crusader waged against the company. In 1975, six years later, the state of Illinois brought them to court, and told them to clean up their act; the Fox had beaten an industrial giant.

Today, we know who waged that secret campaign: high school biology teacher, Jim Phillips.

“He didn’t make a plan to be ‘the Fox.’ He didn’t come out and say: 'Here’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to be a crime-fighter, I’m going to be an environmental sage!' or whatever,” says Rob Phillips, one of the Fox’s nephews.

“This is a guy who’s upset,” adds Jim Spring, another nephew. “This is an average American who saw an injustice and went, wait a minute, that’s ridiculous.”

Listen to hear the rest of the story. 

Featuring Nancy Spring-Epley, Jim Spring, Sandy Benhart, Rob Phillips and Marshall Curry.

Outside/In is NHPR's podcast about the natural world and how we use it. Click here for podcast episodes and more.

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