In April 2004, Fred Milford, a foreman at the Plant 36, Upper Tuscarawas Plant wastewater treatment plant in Akron Ohio died of cancer after a long illness. Since then, at least 10 of Fred's 15 co-workers have been diagnosed with cancer or other life-threatening diseases. All of them worked at the plant which employees call "Plant 666."
The problem is that Plant 36 was built on top of a toxic waste dump run by Rubber City Sand and Gravel, a dump used by Goodyear tire. EPA testing found that well water that the workers drank contained "benzene, a cancer-causing chemical that had infiltrated the water at more than 20 times the federally accepted amount. The agency also found other dangerous chemicals, such as vinyl chloride and lead. "
EPA knew about the dump site when it approved the plant. As a result of continuous groundwater and soil test, the site was placed on EPA's "medium priority" list. The plant workers, however, were never informed of the problems:
Meanwhile, Mike and his fellow workers had no idea what they were ingesting. County officials who knew of the site's history never felt it necessary to tell them. "The well water had been tested over the years, and the levels were fine," says Bob Hollis, a former manager.Read the whole article. It's full of similar stories.
It wasn't until the ferric chloride spill in 1991 that the employees of Plant 36 learned the truth about their workplace. "I felt totally violated," Mike says. "I couldn't believe that people would let that happen -- that we'd be exposed like that and they wouldn't tell us until they had their backs against the wall."
Workers approached the county. The county brought in eight experts to quiet their concerns. Environmental experts showed them graphs that said the contamination was too far below ground level to harm them. A doctor then checked out each worker for tumors and cancerous moles. Everyone was fine. The county also started trucking in fresh water for employee use.
By 1993, most of the workers had pushed the subject out of their minds. Many of them found work at other plants and forgot all about the long lists of alien-sounding chemicals.
Then, in 1995, Mike got sick. The 33-year-old father of three started coughing up blood and having asthma attacks. A doctor diagnosed him with heart and lung disease, as well as nerve damage in both of his legs. He was given 10 years to live.
No one could believe it. "He was like a Greek god, that kid was so healthy," says fellow employee Windy Albert.
"If that kid got sick, you know that plant had something to do with it," says Jim Smith, another co-worker.
But Mike needed to support his family, so he continued to work for the county until he went on disability in 2003. He now spends his time obsessing over the EPA reports that, he believes, prove that his list of illnesses is related to Plant 36.
"He's messed up; he's seriously messed up," says his lawyer, Gerald Walton. "Even his doctors have expressed that these medical conditions are environmentally related. The person responsible for so indiscriminately dumping these toxins and carcinogens should also be responsible to the people they've hurt."
Every two weeks, Tammy Miser and I compile the Weekly Toll, a list of workers killed on the job over the previous two weeks. Fred Milford never appeared on the list. Nor did Windy Albert, another plant worker who died recently. Experts estimate that around 60,000 workers died every year of occupational disease. As much as I complain about the insufficient attention paid to most workplace death in this country, workers who die of occupational disease, like those at Plant 666, are pretty much completely invisible. It's only articles like these that give them the recognition they deserve that alerts other workers and the public to watch out for similar hazards.
Many of you reading this probably don't remember, but it was once the job of Congress to investigate tragedies like this and see that something was done. And we had federal agencies that were supposed to enforce laws to prevent these situations. But that was a long time ago.
Illustration Credit: Joe Bluhm