The feds do their best to conceal a toxic horror lurking beneath Elyria

To the people of Elyria, Ford Road is a well-known landmark, the bumps and hills and potholes as familiar as their own flaws.

The road, on the outskirts of the city, whisks travelers from I-90 past withered trees crouched like sages, before they reach a steel bridge that spans the Black River. Beyond is a portrait of Elyria past and present. A string of boxy homes, built for '50s factory workers, gives way to a newly carved subdivision, filled with life-size dollhouses in beiges and pink.

Then comes the field. It's a strange piece of property — flat and open, like 15 acres of Nebraska. No trees grow here. No buds curiously pop their heads from the ground. The place, by all signs, is a vegetative graveyard.

From time to time, residents have asked about this field. They've complained of the acidic stench that rises from the ground on humid days. They've wondered why, when the road is eyed so covetously by developers, one vast plot remains empty. Sometimes they ask why strange men in state-issued uniforms walk through it with futuristic radar devices. But mostly they're content to go about everyday routines, not giving much thought to the space.

They should be asking more questions.

After weeks of dreary spring days, weathermen finally have positive news to relay: Sunshine is headed Elyria's way. Outside a small farmhouse, Geraldine Shorter reclines on a lounge chair. Her white hair is pulled back with a floppy pink bow, her face tilted intently toward the sun. She looks peaceful, at one with the landscape.

It's a rare moment when Shorter feels this way.

Forty years ago, she was newly married, ready to start a life far away from her childhood home in West Virginia with her husband, William. He had taken a job at the nearby Ford plant. The couple looked at lots throughout Lorain County. But when a real estate agent delivered them to this tiny farmhouse, Geraldine knew they'd found a home.

The backyard was large enough to host pickup football. And the Black River, flowing yards from their front lawn, would make a picturesque backdrop to their lives.

But the real estate agent failed to mention a few things. Like the fact that the innocent-looking plot across the street once housed a chemical dump. And that cancer-causing toxins were emerging from the ground.

The Shorters' lives progressed as lives in Elyria tend to do. William went to the Ford factory every day. Geraldine minded their home. Two baby boys would become high-school football players, then roofers.

One day, while she was pruning her shrubs, a neighbor stopped by to chat and mentioned that the field across from Geraldine's home had once housed a dump. She was disturbed for a moment, but then thought: "Well, it's just garbage." She went back to her flowers.

The field had always harbored unpleasantness. On particularly humid nights, dank, pungent odors would drift into their home. Geraldine would shut the windows and spray lilac-scented deodorants, waiting for the heat to pass.

The years progressed quickly. Her boys graduated and found their own homes. All was as it should be.

Then, four years ago, Geraldine was lounging on her living-room couch, watching TV, when she heard a rapping at the door. Her husband opened it to find two young men, as cheery as camp counselors. They said they were from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They wanted to know about the field across the street.

The questions came, rapid-fire: When did you first become aware of contamination at the site? Are you aware of what kinds of chemicals were stored there? Have you experienced any unexplained health problems?

Geraldine, sitting in the living room, was confused. Chemicals? Toxins? Contamination?

"I didn't know what they were talking about," she says. "They never let us know about any chemicals or anything."

After the EPA people left, she sat, digesting the conversation. With time, she was able to push their words out of her mind.

But last year, she began to bleed. At first, she thought it was from menstrual complications. Yet the blood flowed heavy and nonstop for weeks. A gynecologist would deliver an unpromising diagnosis: ovarian cancer.

As she began to talk to neighbors, it seemed as if, almost overnight, Ford Road had become a cancer ward. Next door, Alice Carroll also had ovarian cancer. Across the street, Ruth Menges had breast cancer. Mr. Cumberland had brain cancer. The young neighbor down the street had lymphoma. "It was kind of strange for us all to get it at the same time," Geraldine says.

That's when they began to think more about that strange plot across the street.

The Ford Road landfill began operating in the early 20th century. Every day, loud trucks rumbled down the street, carrying steel barrels filled with the remnants of industry — pesticides, paint, lead, and factory runoff. There weren't many dumping standards then, and the government wasn't particularly tough about enforcing whatever regulations there were.

Back in 1954, Mrs. Thelma Ryan, a Ford Road resident, shot off aletter to Governor Frank Lausche, complaining about the "stinking, smoldering, rat-infested horror of horrors." She encouraged other residents to do the same. There's no record of any government response.

Not that that was surprising. Through the years, the dump had been owned by various powerful business people — the latest being George Brotherton, a well-connected man who was friends with local officials. Brotherton ostensibly kept records of every company that used the landfill. But even in the '60s, people recalled seeing unfamiliar trucks rumbling down the street at 2 and 3 in the morning, dumping God knows what.

In the mid-'60s, the dump caught fire, sending dark chemical clouds into the air. It burned for three weeks, raining ashy residue onto nearby lawns. News reports describe residents complaining of strange skin ailments and breathing problems. They jammed City Hall, demanding remedy.

Brotherton promised the city that he would stop taking the "type of industrial waste that gives off fumes or starts fire by spontaneous combustion." You could almost see his fingers crossing behind his back.

The mysterious 2 a.m. dumping continued. And the fires started again.

It would take rats, not fire, to eventually close the place down. The landfill had become a haven for thousands of them. Onlookers would come from miles away to see the massive colony, so thick on the road that they ran over them with their cars. The state eventually quarantined the dump and called exterminators. For a while, things were quiet.

In 1974, Lorain County made a surprise announcement: It had bought the land. The dump would be covered with a dirt cap and converted into a park. But that plan was soon dropped without explanation.

It wasn't until 1980 that the Ohio EPA began random checks of 100 contaminated sites throughout Northeast Ohio. An investigator charged with examining Ford Road noticed a rainbow of liquids oozing out of the ground, like pus from a wound. And it was leaking into the Black River.

"This is the worst case I've seen, in terms of volume, in a year of inspections," geologist Mark Schmidt said at the time.

Tests of soil samples showed high levels of toxins, including known cancer-causing agents like benzene, dimethylbenzene, and hexanone. The landfill, officials realized, had been bleeding toxins for decades. And Lorain County's dirt cap was "subpar."

Officials ordered that a new clay cap be placed over the old one. By the end of 1980, the EPA called the problem "contained."

It was very wishful thinking.

No one bothered to confirm the thesis for another 13 years. When the EPA finally tried in 1993, it once again found oily chemicals seeping from the ground. The agency petitioned to have the former landfill declared one of the most dangerous sites in America.

The EPA put in monitoring wells to keep track of toxin levels. Then the agency disappeared once more. It wasn't heard from again for another 10 years, until it was forced into action.

For decades, environmentalists have been concerned about the effects of pollution on the Great Lakes. Terrifying indicators were on the rise — fish with olive-size tumors, birds with reproductive problems, funny-tasting water.

So in 1987, the U.S. and Canada pinpointed 43 pollution sources, pledging rehab efforts. Targets included rivers like the Ashtabula, the Cuyahoga, and the Black — the latter deemed by Ohio State scientists to be the "worst site we've got." Chemicals from Ford Road were making their way to the Black River, then flowing into Lake Erie.

In 1998, Canadian scientists embarked on a study of their sites. They were appalled by what they found.

In 14 of the 17 areas studied, reports showed that residents had higher rates of cancer, reproductive diseases, and birth defects than anywhere in Canada.

The report worried officials in the United States. So in 2001, the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR), in cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control, started its own study.

The report, produced last summer, proved similarly terrifying. It showed that the population living near these areas — over 9 million people — had suffered more cases of breast, lung, and colon cancer than expected, as well as a higher-than-normal infant mortality rate.

Yet few people were privy to this information. For more than a year, the ATSDR suppressed the report, claiming the study was "well below expectations" and contained "faulty science." (The ATSDR did not respond to Scene's numerous interview requests.)

David Carpenter, a professor at the State University of New York at Albany, has a somewhat different take: "Officials got embarrassed and tried to hide them."

Carpenter, who reviewed the study, says the "science was there in spades." The problem wasn't scientific; it was political. "The present administration does not want people realizing there are significant health hazards they face with exposure to environmental chemicals."

After all, acknowledging the health hazards would force the EPA to acknowledge its own liability for decades of inaction.

"Liability, of course, implies damages, legal processes, and costs of remedial action," Canadian biologist Michael Gilbertson told the Center for Public Integrity. "The governments in both countries are so heavily aligned with, particularly, the chemical industry that the word amongst the bureaucracies is that they really do not want any evidence of effect or injury to be allowed out there."

Within the ATSDR, however, at least one employee believed that suppressing this information amounted to government-assisted homicide. Toxicologist Chris De Rosa e-mailed the agency's top brass, assailing them for the "apparent censorship of science and distribution of factual information regarding the health status of vulnerable communities." (De Rosa didn't respond to interview requests. Friends say he's preparing a lawsuit against the agency.)

The ATSDR responded by attacking De Rosa. Despite 15 years of stellar job reviews, he was demoted. Colleagues believe it was retaliatory and called their congressmen.

In February, a trio of senators penned angry letters to the CDC, asking about "disturbing allegations about interference with the work of government scientists." They expressed concern that "management may have retaliated against" De Rosa for blowing the whistle, and demanded answers.

Late last month, they got one — kind of. Blaming the report's delay on "scientific issues," the ATSDR released part of the study — acknowledging that it contained only "selected information on chemical releases."

The report did allow there were "potential human health impacts" at 86 of the 140 sites studied. It also admitted that a "range of health effects may be associated with these toxic exposures" — including cancer, hormone problems, and reproductive and developmental abnormalities.

The ATSDR didn't release health information for specific sites. But a leaked study showed Ford Road to be highly dangerous.

Environmentalists were enraged. The feds were purposefully keeping residents in the dark. "These are human lives they're playing with," says Kristy Meyer of the Ohio Environmental Council. "People have the right to know what they're living with."

In 2004, 10 years after the U.S. EPA identified Ford Road as a "high-priority concern," dozens of workers from the agency's Chicago office descended upon Elyria.

They took soil samples, measured methane levels, and went door to door, gathering history about the landfill. For many new residents, this was the first they'd ever heard of the dump. And they were furious.

"I had no idea the thing was across the street," says Chris Meyers, who moved into her new home six years ago. "Obviously, this is something I would have liked to have known beforehand. Now we're sort of stuck here."

Neighbor Sandy Wessel agrees. "I might not have moved here had I known."

Others, like Dan and Judy Miller, ask why it took 30 years for the EPA to do anything.

It's a question the EPA doesn't like answering. "It takes a long time to negotiate with responsible parties," says Demaree Collier, the agency's site manager.

The EPA has always been an agency swimming upstream. Congress leaves it chronically underfunded, and presidents like Reagan and the second Bush have nakedly attempted to gut it over the years, believing environmental protection to be a synonym for government intrusion. So the agency must negotiate with polluters to clean up their own messes. Lawyers can drag the process out for years, and the EPA has never been known for its aggressiveness.

In the meantime, toxins continue to gather in the bodies of unsuspecting neighbors. "That's a concern," Collier says with government understatement.

The latest studies indicate that the site holds elevated levels of lead, PCBs, arsenic, and benzene — all cancer-causing. But Collier's still doing her best to downplay the dangers. "There are chemical hazards there for sure," she says, but emphasizes that the major areas of concern are "small."

Collier's assurances provide little solace to Peter and Alice Carroll. Four years ago — around the same time the EPA came to town — Alice was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. Once fiercely independent, she was reduced to an invalid, relying on her husband for everything from feeding to baths. For months, "All I could manage was to sit on this couch and watch TV," she says.

A year ago, Peter dug up a business card an EPA official had given him. He called twice, wanting to know whether there might be any environmental connection to his wife's disease. "They never called back," he says.

Peter thought about contacting a lawyer, but "We're not medical people," he says. "How can we prove that this is what caused it?"Celesta Menges feels the same way. Her mother-in-law, Ruth, lived on Ford Road for most of her life. She used to walk up and down the road every day. But in 2003, after four years of remission, Ruth learned that her breast cancer had returned. It was spreading to the rest of her body.

At Elyria Memorial Hospital, Ruth shared a room with Geraldine Shorter. The two talked about how strange it was that all the neighbors seemed to be contracting cancer at the same time. Ruth died two years ago. Her children are still asking why.

"My mother-in-law had a beautiful garden right there," Celesta says, pointing to an overgrown mass of weeds not far from the landfill. "You have to wonder what the exposure might have done to the vegetables — to her. There was no history of breast cancer in our family."

The Cumberland family is asking similar questions. Father James was a former contractor with the shoulders of a bodybuilder. Six years ago, he was hired to work on the new Ford Road subdivisions, directly across from the landfill. But in 2004, Cumberland, who once lugged concrete blocks around, suddenly found that lifting a coffee cup caused him to shake. Doctors eventually discovered the cause: a massive brain tumor. He died not long after the diagnosis.

It's not unreasonable to assume a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the landfill and these illnesses. "The chemicals are carcinogens," says Peter Orris, a professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Illinois. "We know there are exposures going on . . . These things don't always have immediate health effects."

Sometimes they take years to rear their heads — a fact that sends new residents into deep worry. "This road's really peaceful, other than that whole landfill thing," Sandy Wessel says bitterly.

After four years of negotiations, the EPA and the site's former owners have finally agreed on a plan to clean up the landfill. The $3.4 million strategy involves extracting the most polluted areas, then strengthening the clay cover. Officials are also debating putting in a water-treatment wall where the landfill leaks into the Black River. The wall would purify groundwater as it flows toward the river.

The cleanup, however, was supposed to begin two years ago — but not a yard of dirt has moved. Collier thinks it will start this summer. Maybe.

Elyria Councilman Mark Craig says he's heard that residents have complained about the delay. But few city officials seem interested in the problem. Law Director Terry Shilling's office forwarded Scene to City Engineer Mukund Moghe's office, who in turn directed us to Mayor William Grace. He didn't return repeated phone calls.

This spring, a few dozen unknowing kids used the acreage for paintball. Others set up chairs and suntanned. No one knows when — if ever — the ASTDR will fully explain to residents the danger this field presents. Or how many more will die in the meantime.