Mister Toxic's Neighborhood

For 17 years, hazardous waste periodically leaked, exploded, and burned at an Ohio City plant. Residents wonder what it did to them.

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It was about 10 p.m., long after dinners had been cooked and eaten, and children were gathered into bed. Inside the North East Chemical Corp. plant in Ohio City, a worker was adding 1,200 gallons of powdered acid to a tank of hazardous waste when a chemical reaction sparked and ignited. Within minutes, a cacophony of sirens and pulsing red lights erupted as fire trucks descended on the building.

From her front yard, Debbie Webb could see plumes of smoke rising "like the atomic bomb" over the rooftops of her neighborhood. Residents straggled from their homes and milled on the sidewalk, confused and frightened. An army of firemen and a Haz-Mat team in protective suits swarmed outside the NEC plant. But they hesitated to enter the property.

"They refused to go into North East Chemical because they did not yet know what the chemicals were, and they were not willing to take that chance with their own safety," Webb remembers. "One fireman told my friend, 'If you were my family, I would have you out of here right now.'"

Not until midnight did Cleveland Fire Inspector Ollie Zahorodnij call the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to report that the fire was under control. By then, the neighborhood was in turmoil, and camera crews had captured the conflagration for the 11 o'clock news.

It was not the first time the fire department had been called to the NEC plant. Nor would it be the last. But the spectacular fire of September 23, 1992, was the one that finally forced neighbors to pay close attention to the yellowed stone factory building at the corner of Fulton Road and Monroe Avenue.

Until then, some residents had supposed that the nearby "recycling facility," as it was called in public relations fliers, was a place to drop off empty bottles and cans. Few realized that the plant actually recycled some of the most dangerous chemicals and toxic wastes known to man. "That fire got everybody's attention," says Mark Pestak, a BP physicist whose family was still new to the neighborhood in 1992. "Then we knew what was going on. It was like 'Oh, that place -- this is what they do. They're trucking hazardous waste in and out.'"

It's not surprising that more people hadn't asked what NEC was up to. The surrounding streets are home to a scattering of commerce and light industry that attracts little attention. And the building NEC moved into had been there for 50 years -- a familiar sight, wedged between two venerable cemeteries and a wide valley of railroad tracks. A few residents had asked the company about the semi trucks lurching through the neighborhood, bearing bright "Hazardous Cargo" warning signs, but they were told not to worry.

Then came the big fire, and Webb says, "People became educated that night."

What they learned was that NEC had been quietly mixing poisons together at the edge of one of Cleveland's most densely populated neighborhoods -- within one mile of 16 schools -- since 1983. And the company had not always done a safe job of it. Records kept by various city and state departments showed that the plant had repeatedly been cited for violating codes and safety regulations. By 1994, the plant's violations were so numerous that the Ohio EPA fined the company nearly $100,000. Between 1988 and 1990 alone, firemen responded to four explosions and leaks at the factory, and residents remember fire trucks sometimes making several trips a day.

Remarkably, NEC never obtained a state permit to operate its chemical mixing plant. It applied for a permit only after being pressured by state regulators, and then the application was trapped in a governmental netherworld for 17 years.

After the 1992 fire, a sleepy opposition movement, which had consisted mostly of neighbors fuming privately to each other, surged to life. Residents organized pickets. They wrote editorials for the Plain Press, a local weekly newspaper. Meetings began in earnest to forge a neighborhood group to do something about NEC.

That group eventually assumed the unwieldy moniker ROC-SOHW -- Residents of Ohio City-Subcommittee on Hazardous Waste -- and Pestak became its leader. In 1998, ROC-SOHW exacted an enormous promise from NEC: In exchange for neighbors dropping their opposition to its permit request, the company agreed to withdraw from the neighborhood altogether by the end of 2000.

NEC might have made good on its promise, and neighborhood residents might be able to feel some measure of safety, if the company had not abruptly gone bankrupt this February.

The hazardous chemicals have been carted off, and NEC's weathered old building now sits empty, poised for a new industrial tenant. But in residents' minds, the site's past may be as menacing as its future. For 17 years, toxins spilled, leaked, exploded, burned, and evaporated at NEC. Despite the huge volumes of waste that passed through the plant daily, precious little was done by the company or state regulators to determine what neighborhood residents were exposed to.

Now residents are left with anxious, lingering questions about the empty site, what will be done to clean it up, and the 17 years they spent breathing the tons of noxious fumes that NEC was never required to measure or report.

The eight acres at the corner of Fulton Road and Monroe Avenue accommodated a Catholic charity hospital -- Cleveland's first hospital -- and an orphanage in the 1850s. Just west of the site is the city's oldest Jewish cemetery, dotted with broken stones bearing half-legible names. Another block west is one of the city's oldest public parks. And to the east, separated by a weed-snarled chain-link fence, is the 150-year-old Monroe Cemetery, whose broad trees and sloping ground make it seem as if the graveyard spreads out forever. Cleveland used to bury its most prestigious dead here, when Ohio City was still a wealthy area.

In 1932, the Dobeckmun Company erected a factory on the site to make cellophane cigar pouches, gift wrap, and bags. At the height of the Depression, the new plant meant welcome jobs and revenue for the neighborhood. Many if not most of the 100 or so workers awoke each morning, packed their lunches, and walked down the street to work.

Dow Chemical Company bought out Dobeckmun in 1957 and made the factory part of its packaging division, which manufactured Handi-Wrap, Saran Wrap, synthetic film, and plastic containers. The American Can Company bought the factory in 1973 to produce its own synthetics. Then in 1983, the property was sold to BBP Inc., later reorganized as Brandon Partners. By 1983, when NEC began leasing the property from Brandon Partners, the neighborhood had long outgrown its reliance on local factory jobs. NEC hired fewer than 50 people. Only a handful of them lived near the facility.

But the factory was embedded in the community by then, and few questioned why a chemical plant would continue to operate so close to a densely populated neighborhood.

In early 1983, NEC launched its operation. For 17 years, the company would accept hazardous wastes from the coatings, printing, packaging, and polymer industries -- a staggering list of unpronounceable toxic, combustible, carcinogenic, and corrosive chemicals -- and blend them together to make fuel to fire cement kilns across the country. At the time, this type of waste recycling was a brand new business, spawned when Congress outlawed the burial of most raw hazardous waste. Incineration became an attractive and lucrative alternative, and at first, cement kilns seemed like a good solution. Environmentalists decided that the cement kilns, which burned longer and hotter -- and, many believed, cleaner -- than incinerators burning waste simply to dispose of it, would get rid of more of the hazardous material they burned. Also, it was cheap fuel -- much cheaper than coal or natural gas. Suddenly, cement manufacturing became a much richer enterprise, and so did the business of making the hazardous waste fuel.

By 1994, NEC was storing 68,750 gallons of hazardous waste in movable containers and 36,048 gallons in storage tanks, and it was processing 15,000 tons of it every year -- deadly chemicals such as cadmium, chromium, arsenic, and lead. A compactor at the site squeezed the last drops of liquid waste from aerosol cans, solid distillations, and lead tank bottoms to add to the mix. At all hours of the day, semi trucks bearing toxic loads rumbled through the neighborhood's narrow streets, twisting laboriously in and out of NEC's gravel driveway on Monroe.

It was the trucks that prompted Debbie Webb, a woman with a measured, solemn expression and a flair for dramatic pauses, to start asking questions about a decade ago. "Part of it, too, was this weird chemical smell," she says. "In the evenings, I would come home from work and open the windows, and my cat's eyes -- she'd go sit in the window -- would turn red." Webb visited the county library, read hazardous waste journals, and went to environmental groups for answers about how toxic NEC's chemicals really were. "They printed out a bunch of stuff that really scared me," she says. "Birth defects, brain damage, cancer showing up years later, things like that."

Before a new facility processes its first drop of hazardous waste, it must tell the U.S. EPA what it intends to do and receive a permit from the Ohio EPA to treat and store hazardous waste. A company can also receive a "temporary exemption," which allows it to begin operations while its permit application passes through the tedious regulatory process. NEC did give the required notice to the U.S. EPA in January 1983. But it opened for business and operated for three months before even filing a permit application with the state. Two years, a dozen warnings, and uncounted tons of waste later, NEC finally got the legally required temporary exemption.

While the plant was operating with no legal sanction, the Ohio EPA visited the facility periodically to scold its owners for failing to obtain a permit and point out other violations. But inspectors never filed an injunction to close NEC.

Meeting permit requirements was not NEC's only problem: By 1994, the Ohio City plant had racked up a list of violations so long that the Ohio EPA fined the company $97,440. Chief among NEC's more than 80 transgressions was operating without a permit, but there were myriad other violations as well.

An Ohio EPA summary of inspections from the time includes problems ranging from bad record-keeping to leaky or improperly labeled drums. Once, employees kept inspectors locked outside for two hours until NEC's president, Phil Stapf, arrived to show them in. Many times, NEC's contingency plan -- what to do in case of an emergency -- was deemed inadequate or its personnel improperly trained.

In a September 1991 inspection, the EPA cited NEC for storing unpermitted laboratory waste, failing to correctly label the contents of containers or keep them properly closed, allowing a container to leak, and letting equipment give off chemicals as it waited to be cleaned.

The next year, just six months before the September fire that would so alarm residents, inspectors found improperly characterized and undated waste, containers without lids, unpermitted stored waste, no equipment testing log, and "failure to determine if drum contents match waste profile." In a memo written after the fire, an EPA official raised the possibility that NEC had accepted impure, "mixed waste," possibly radioactive.

NEC made few friends at the fire department. Besides the occasional fire, explosion, leak, or spill, there were years of repeated annual violations: 50-year-old sprinklers, malfunctioning water pumps, unpermitted or abandoned storage tanks, or tanks installed too close to the building. Sometimes, simple housekeeping lapsed, and exit signs were left unlighted or combustible materials undisposed.

Then, in March 1996, about the time that ROC-SOHW was starting to raise a clamor over NEC's long-pending permit request, the city discovered that NEC had never installed some air pollution control equipment the Safety Department had ordered two and a half years earlier. The city's Bureau of Air Pollution Control also reported that NEC was emitting 44 tons of pollution into the neighborhood every year. Immediately, a swarm of city inspectors descended on NEC, citing violations of building codes, electrical codes, safety codes, and public health codes.

Mayor Mike White jumped on the soapbox, condemning NEC's "recklessness" at a press conference and saying, "They have just willfully disregarded the law." He met privately with company officials and residents. He took a walking tour of Monroe Avenue and vowed to make a study of the company's health effects on the neighborhood. The Bureau of Air Pollution Control threatened to shut down NEC unless the overdue ventilation system was installed immediately, and the company's first hurried attempt failed when the equipment caught fire. By that fall, though, the ventilation system was up and running. According to Michelle Whitlow, director of the Bureau of Air Pollution Control, the mayor's air pollution study later revealed that emissions from NEC were well within lawful standards, even before the equipment was installed.

But data from that study don't ease the mind of Glen Landers, clean air specialist for the Sierra Club's Midwest office. He says the city's Bureau of Air Pollution Control lacks proper oversight, and that it usually warns companies before conducting an inspection. "If I was a citizen living near NEC, would I trust the city's air pollution study? No," he says. "Maybe they did one particular study right, and maybe they didn't, but I don't think they've done anything to build confidence within the community." Scene repeatedly requested a copy of the 1996 study, but mayoral press secretary Natalia Martanovic did not provide one.

As the list of NEC's violations mounted, so did the fear among the plant's neighbors. "Oh, it was terrifying," remembers Webb. "I was really afraid of this company. There were a lot of nights when I would be in bed, and I would hear sirens. And I would get dressed and walk down the street to look straight out [at NEC] to see if I could see fire trucks. I bought boxes to evacuate our cats if necessary. I had to think about where we could stay."

After the fire in 1992, NEC began holding open houses once a year, with drinks and refreshments and friendly tours of the facility. Webb took the tour and says a display case at the front of NEC's building showed examples of materials "that they told people they processed. The kinds of examples they had were things like Murphy's Oil Soap -- 'cleansers that you would find under your kitchen sink' was what they told people." But many residents no longer believed NEC's assurances. And year after year, a persistent cluster of people picketed NEC's annual open houses, shouting their message to passing cars.

Joe Lehner, who lives directly across from NEC, in a little blue house with a fading "No Hazardous Cargo" sign tacked up in the window, recalls a polite arrogance by NEC officials. "They were always nice guys, but you could never tell if they were telling you the truth," he says. "It was really evident that they had this attitude that 'We can do whatever we want.' They just didn't seem to have any recognition that this was really a dangerous thing to have in the neighborhood."

Meanwhile, ROC-SOHW was beginning to take shape. At its height, the group was a pack of only about 30 activists, even though its mailing list included more than 200. The lack of vigor, some residents say, reflected the attitude that allowed a hazardous waste treatment facility to slip into the neighborhood in the first place. According to census data for the tracts containing this corner of Ohio City, the average annual income in 1990 was less than $17,000. More than 60 percent of the residents were renters, 40 percent were Hispanic, and nearly half lived below the poverty line.

"That's what always seemed unfair to us," says Pestak. "Ask Phil [Stapf, co-founder and president of NEC] -- I can only speculate on how a toxic waste processing plant came to be located in one of the poorest minority neighborhoods in Cleveland." (Stapf did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.)

Like many in the neighborhood, George and Jannet Zmich say they were outraged and frightened by NEC, but unable to find time and energy to join ROC-SOHW's fight. "It's always hard to set aside time for anything," says George, 46. "But we went to [ROC-SOHW's] meetings and got a lot of information from them. Unfortunately, everybody's got to work."

The Zmichs grew up in the neighborhood and have lived a few doors down from the NEC site -- in the modest house they bought from Jannet's parents -- for 26 years. Jannet remembers seeing neighbors walk to work at Dow when she was a little girl. In more recent years, though, she and George remember a pungent smell in the evenings, trucks delivering chemicals in the small hours of the night, and the fire department making six or seven trips a day to NEC.

"The fire trucks were here constantly," Jannet says. "You'd just walk out the front door and see them there, and come back inside and sit down and hope nothing happened." The night of the 1992 fire, she and her husband listened on their home police scanner to NEC workers' frantic, terrified cries for help.

When NEC delivery trucks rolled past -- sometimes at 3 or 4 a.m. -- George would sit out on his porch and try to catch their identification numbers. He has "worked with" non-hazardous chemicals for many years, he says, although he declines to say much more than that. At work, he'd look up what chemicals the identification numbers stood for. "Each of those tankers held about 40- to 45,000 pounds each, and [NEC] had enough tankers in there -- they would have been able to level this whole neighborhood," he says. "I just used to wonder, 'How long before this whole thing blows?'"

Members of ROC-SOHW eventually figured out that the best way to challenge NEC was by jumping into the permit process. "From 1992 to 1995, we said, 'This is bad. We should do something about this,'" says Pestak. "After that, we got serious." Weekly strategy sessions and long hours of poring over permit laws and safety records became regular.

NEC had been bought in 1994 by a Cleveland-based company called TBN Holdings. Although the only real change took place on paper -- the two companies were enmeshed already -- TBN rebaptized NEC by paying off the EPA fine and publicly pledging to redouble compliance efforts. It also stepped up NEC's bid for the long-stalled hazardous waste permit. In fact, under its permit application, the company wanted to quadruple its output.

Pestak, a tall man with a big face and a loping smile he can't wipe away, knew almost nothing five years ago about the laws governing hazardous waste facilities; nor did anyone else in ROC-SOHW. On Good Friday 1995, he and another resident took their first look at NEC's massive permit application at the Ohio EPA's office in Twinsburg. "That was our beginning of trying to understand," he says.

In Ohio, an application to treat and store hazardous waste passes through two stages. First, it is submitted to the Ohio EPA, which checks for factual mistakes or omissions. When the errors are cleared up, often after several tries by the company, the application is passed along to the Hazardous Waste Facility Board, a separate entity with the actual power to grant the permit. At this critical phase, the HWFB lets third parties submit a "petition to intervene" in the process. The petition, if approved, leads to a public hearing and sometimes to legal proceedings.

NEC submitted its permit application to the Ohio EPA about a dozen times. The EPA sent it back again and again, with complaints about wrong or missing information. Finally, in December 1995, the EPA was satisfied and handed the application to the HWFB. Simultaneously, ROC-SOHW crafted a petition to intervene, gathered the needed signatures, and sent it to the HWFB.

The ensuing public hearing -- a turning point for the neighborhood's struggle to oust NEC -- was held one evening in July 1996, and 150 residents turned out. State legislators Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Pringle, and the directors of various city departments and environmental groups, joined neighbors to testify against the company. Kathleen McDonnell, a member of ROC-SOHW, recalls the event as "148 to 2. Former employees, city agencies, health departments, neighbors -- they were all there attacking NEC," she recalls. "It wasn't just neighbors saying, 'Not in my backyard'; it was city departments saying, 'This is a hazard.'"

Because of the intense outcry, the HWFB ordered NEC to try to work out an agreement with its neighbors. A mediator was appointed, and at first discussions were slow. The mediator told residents they should relinquish the hope of forcing NEC from the neighborhood. Instead, ROC-SOHW dumped the mediator and entered into direct talks with NEC.

Two years later, ROC-SOHW and the company cut a deal. NEC agreed to move out of the neighborhood by the end of 2000. In return, ROC-SOHW agreed to let the company immediately increase its output by 25 percent.

Then, in October 1999, Country Transportation Inc., part of a large conglomeration of industries, bought NEC. Five months later, NEC was bankrupt. Neither the bankruptcy file nor records submitted to the Ohio EPA make clear exactly what happened.

According to Jack Pekarek, president of Country Transportation and someone whose signature appears often in the EPA file, NEC was already heavily in debt when the sale took place. "I'm not aware of all the details of what happened over there," he says. "Sometimes people are optimistic and think they can do better than the previous owners. I just see [NEC] as a relatively small company struggling to survive."

Although the NEC plant is empty now, its specter still looms over the neighborhood. Worried residents are asking what, exactly, the company left behind in the ground and in the air, and how it will affect their health. There are few answers. Neither the Ohio EPA nor the U.S. EPA has records of ever taking soil samples or testing the groundwater at the site. Few tests were performed to find out what was in the air while NEC was operating. And the neighborhood health survey that neighbors say Mayor White promised never materialized.

Webb, who suffered "chemically induced asthma" after the 1992 fire and had to see a doctor, asks, "Down the road, who's going to be accountable for this? We knew the fumes we breathed every day weren't good for us, but years from now, are we going to find out we have some weird cancer?"

Stuart Greenberg, director of Environmental Health Watch, a consumer advocacy nonprofit, says, "I don't think anybody has any idea what the health legacy is. We almost certainly don't have good data about what people were exposed to, because for that you have to monitor people's homes, and that wasn't done. And on many chemicals, there's no information on the long-term health effects of low levels of exposure -- and certainly not combinations of chemicals."

Dan Brown, president of Partners Environmental Consulting Inc., says residents shouldn't worry -- at least about remaining ground pollution. In the last two years, when NEC's EPA compliance had improved somewhat, he visited the facility several times. He remembers housekeeping so good at NEC that "you could literally eat off the floors." The neighborhood's greatest risk, he says, was always fire or explosion. "There may be no risk now, even if there is some level of contamination at this site, because there is no obvious or apparent route of exposure," he says, noting that no one drinks the water there, and no one plays in the dirt.

But residents say that kids do play over at NEC, especially now that it's unoccupied. Soccer and softball games spread out in the driveway, as do basketball games in the street out front. Remembering numerous spills and leaks, neighbors are as nervous now as ever.

For now, though, the Ohio EPA is withholding judgment while it reviews the cleanup plan that Brandon Partners -- to whom the responsibility fell when NEC went bankrupt -- submitted last week. William Baumann, one of Brandon Partners' five owners, says he expects to spend $150,000 cleaning up the site.

But Brandon Partners is responsible only for cleaning up NEC's mess. According to Chris Trepal, director of the Earth Day Coalition, there may be contamination at the site dating back to its days as a cellophane plant. "Some of these old sites are just one dirty industry after another," she says. Cellophane manufacturing "is not all that great, because it's a chlorinated compound. When you heat chlorine, you create unwanted by-products like dioxin." In a recent reassessment of dioxin, the U.S. EPA determined that the compound is 10 times more toxic than previously suspected.

"[NEC] was just one stop on a whole cycle of poison," says Landers, who doesn't harbor great faith in the Ohio EPA's ability to oversee a proper cleanup. "No, we're not comfortable with the Ohio EPA cleaning up this site. They're just not aggressive. Environmental protection is not a priority."

What comes next is on everyone's mind. A couple of months ago, there was some talk among neighbors of trying to have the old NEC plant property rezoned for residential use.

"I'd love to look across the street and see neighbors' houses," said resident Manda Gillespie at a recent neighborhood meeting she organized to discuss the possibility of rezoning. Six months ago, she and her boyfriend Sadhu Johnston bought a house on Monroe Avenue, only to find themselves in the middle of the environmental discrimination scenario they'd studied at Oberlin College.

But Baumann has made it clear that Brandon Partners "would not be agreeable" to rezoning, because the property value would drop. Unless residents would like to buy the site -- for about $1.5 million -- and then have it rezoned, Baumann plans to lease it to another industrial tenant. "But no hazardous waste," he promises grandly.

Baumann has settled on a new tenant: Mr. Heater. Now located on East 79th Street, the company makes small heaters for hunting and camping. In a recent show of faith, Mr. Heater owner Alan Haire led several residents, including Pestak, on a tour of his current facility and charmed them by knowing employees' first names. "We're light manufacturing," Haire says. "We run a clean environment, a clean, safe operation. And the first thing we want to do is clean up the site, make it nice -- because we want to be proud of it too."

Brown says the neighborhood should accept its new light industrial neighbor as a happy ending. Otherwise, it might end up with a brownfield, creating no jobs, paying no taxes. "The ground isn't pristine; it's not going to be pristine," he says. "That's just how it is. And that's not any different at this site; it's like that at a million others."

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