The Dirt on Middlefield

The rural village's manufacturers are gone, but a big pile and old questions remain

The dirt pile left behind by the old Johnson Rubber Company is the size of a basketball court and taller than Shaq. Before going bankrupt in 2008, the company estimated the mound contained somewhere around 7,000 tons of "potentially impacted soil," the toxic residue from decades of rubber production.

The Johnson complex dates to 1895, when the company was founded as a bucket maker. Over the 20th century, it grew into a small industrial plant. With an abandoned suite of offices, the place now looks like an empty steel mill with an attached motel. The mound has been on the grounds since 2005, created from five trouble spots all over the grounds and covered with a tarp, seemingly to help put it out of mind.

But the mound is forever on the minds of Ron and Laura Duncan, who live across the street from Johnson, in what used to be prime real estate — a blue-collar neighborhood of small, neat homes that have mostly emptied out in recent years. The Duncans have lived in Middlefield most of their lives, and they've spent the last 17 years amassing paperwork from local, state, and federal agencies to bolster their claims that the rural village in Geauga County is killing its citizens with the toxic remains of the industry that once fueled the local economy.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency says the pile isn't a problem and that it has no plans to test it. But the Duncans have waded through 50 years of EPA and Department of Health complaints and incident reports about oil spills, leaking chemicals, and water pollution that they believe give them no reason to trust the word of their government watchdog.

Paperwork Johnson filed with the Ohio EPA in 2005 says the pile contains "volatile organic compounds." According to Ohio EPA environmental specialist Karen Nesbit, that could include trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride — substances known to cause ailments ranging from skin rashes to liver and nerve damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To Ron Duncan, that sounds about right.

The world's fourth-largest Amish settlement makes the area a tourist destination, but for generations Middlefield's real industry was manufacturing plants like Johnson Rubber, Carlisle Engineered Products, and Kraftmaid Cabinetry. Tax breaks and Amish labor made the village a reliable industrial hub. Combined, Johnson and Carlisle employed nearly 1,000 people during peak productivity over the 20th century, from World War II to boom years in the '70s and '80s. And as long as anybody's been keeping track, there have been less than favorable by-products of the prosperity.

From the late 1950s through the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Health and U.S. EPA repeatedly linked Carlisle to oil found in local water. In 1995, the EPA found trichloroethylene in a groundwater production well on the Johnson facility, but at a concentration below the federal standard for safe drinking water. In 2001, the Ohio EPA detected vinyl chloride downstream from a Johnson Rubber drainage pathway. Two years later, the agency cited Johnson for allowing carbon black — a by-product of burned petroleum and a suspected carcinogen — to pollute a tributary of the Cuyahoga. A 2004 Ohio Department of Health report said women and children in Middlefield have leukemia at rates of four times the national average.

Ron and Laura Duncan sit at their dining room table and produce binder after binder full of articles, complaints, correspondence, and inquiries. But their Middlefield experience began well before the flood of paperwork.

Ron grew up within a mile of the Carlisle rubber plant. As a kid, he was a medical marvel with a limited battery of involuntary reflexes: Doctors could tap his knee until the second shift ended, and his leg wouldn't kick. As an adult, he was diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning. Decades after he stopped playing in Middlefield's contaminated creeks and years after he quit drinking its tap water, his body still contains toxic elements that local manufacturers dumped in the town's water -- strontium, chromium, and excessive calcium, not to mention cadmium in his liver. The nearby creek used to flood into his basement, where his mom hung their laundry. It stunk up their home, and the smell outside wasn't much better.

"The creek, it was like a caustic soda — bubbly," recalls Ron.

Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic believe the alien elements caused his peripheral neuropathy, a long-running lack of feeling and reflexes. His brother, who grew up exposed to the creek water, suffers from the same condition. Neither parent had a genetic component that might have otherwise explained it. In 2001, Laura, a lifelong Middlefielder, was diagnosed with a similar condition. Sometimes her feet hurt so bad she cried; other times, her heel felt as if she was standing in warm water.

Over the years, Ron's condition grew worse. Eventually, he would accidentally cut himself at work and feel nothing, realizing it only once he saw the blood on his hands. It made him such a liability that the post office was content to let him retire on permanent disability in 1993, at the age of 38. That's when he went to work documenting decades of Middlefield pollution.

Despite the history of fouled air and water, neither the state nor federal EPA has ever sued any of the local manufacturers. The Duncans' few victories were a long time coming, and they were not decisive. (The town's peculiar patterns of illness and the EPA's lack of action was chronicled in the Scene story "While the EPA Slept," published November 15, 2001.)

For a time, their campaign reverberated around the country. In 1994, they wrote to then-Vice President Al Gore, a noted environmental advocate. They explained the town's anecdotally high rate of health problems and asked him to convince the EPA to test the soil and water. Gore's staff forwarded their complaints to the U.S. EPA, which investigated, then handed the matter to Ohio's Department of Health and EPA. The Duncans' hopes were high. Today, they recall a Twinsburg EPA agent who seemed tired of dealing with their requests. "Well, we'll be tough now that Big Al is involved," he had told them at the time.

But tough they weren't. The EPA followed a decades-long paper trail documenting contaminated water, spilled oil, and casually dumped toxic chemicals. The agency never singled out Johnson Rubber, instead focusing on nearby Carlisle, which had an even worse record. After seven more years of intermittent pressure from the Ohio EPA and Mayor William Poole, Carlisle finally committed to cleaning up the soil around its nearby facility in 2001.

For six years, the EPA held public meetings to update residents about the progress of the Carlisle clean-up, which the company estimated would take between 2 and 20 years. On average, a dozen citizens attended. Some asked timid questions. Most let the Duncans speak up. The last meeting was in March 2007. Biannual newsletters have become annual. The sporadic memos don't address the Duncans' questions about soil contamination, where the waste material from the plant is being taken, or even why Carlisle closed in 2006. To the Duncans, the Carlisle conflict is evidence of a larger pattern: The EPA won't do much, it definitely won't do it quickly, and it will do as little as possible — even after the federal branch leaned on Ohio's regional and state offices.

So when the Ohio EPA says the gargantuan mound of dirt isn't a threat, the Duncans are inclined to disagree. Says Ron, "The EPA is inept."

Johnson Rubber closed in 2008. The former plant now is mostly a dormant, decaying complex spread over 15 acres, which are open to passersby. The building is being stripped, and some of it is in use for storage. For now, the pile remains.

"It's a hidden dinosaur of Middlefield," says Duncan. "Out of sight, out of mind."

A giant plastic tarp covers the pile, more or less. Johnson documents say the mound sits atop a liner and six inches of sand. Atop the pile, rainwater rolls off the faded black sheet and pools around its base; it seeps through a couple dozen holes that have worn through the surface. A pipe system bisects the pile, part of a vapor reclamation system. These days, shrubbery blooms on top, easing the pile into the ecosystem.

It's all obscured by the dilapidated building, just a stone's throw from a barren parking lot, which has become a throughway for locals on their way to the nearby gym. People who walk by every day don't seem to notice the pile. At first, neither did its most curious neighbor.

Ron Duncan first saw the mound in 2008. Johnson had filed for bankruptcy, the facility went up for sale, and the place was open to the public. He took pictures of empty chemical pits, dead cockroaches, and the pile — which, even then, had a hole in its relatively new tarp. As he has for years, Duncan started asking questions. In January this year, he contacted the Ohio EPA and asked to have the soil tested. They visited the complex in February, took a look at the mound, and declared it OK.

The Duncans weren't satisfied. They sought intervention from the CDC's Department of Health & Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Register in Atlanta. The agency examined the Ohio EPA paperwork about the Johnson site, but couldn't find much pertaining to the pile or the previous water contamination. In early April, the Agency for Toxic Substances concluded that what was in the EPA file was not enough to compel a public health assessment of the pile.

"Their task is to review documents, not to test," Duncan says with a groan.

One week later, the EPA admitted to the Duncans that the Agency for Toxic Substances hadn't seen all the paperwork — that not even the EPA had seen all the paperwork. An e-mail exchange between the EPA and Duncans reveals that the EPA's file was missing the Ohio EPA Division of Air Pollution form that documented the pile's contents and containment plans.

To the Duncans, missing paperwork is nothing new. Amid the government's bureaucratic maze, they say they've seen videotapes and documents disappear without a trace — footage of sludge leaking into drainage ditches, photographs of site excavations they had personally submitted. They were often left to piece together information, cross-reference material from the federal and state EPAs, the local office in Twinsburg, and the state headquarters in Columbus. Over time, the Duncans' requests were so voluminous that the EPA asked them to direct all contact through their Public Interest Center in Columbus and leave the Twinsburg agents alone. Duncan says the local office never had a sympathetic ear; the EPA refers to them as "the infamous Duncans."

The Ohio EPA, meanwhile, insists the pile is no big deal.

"Based on what I am seeing, we're not going to test that pile," says Mike Settles, an EPA spokesman in the Columbus office. "Where it is, covered, we don't believe it presents a problem to the community if we're not getting fugitive dust or getting rain or snow going through the pile. If someone does become aware of [runoff water from the pile], we encourage them to contact us."

If nothing else, the tears in the tarp and foliage blooming on top of it would seem to indicate that the elements are seeping through. If the dirt is harmless, Ron Duncan says, they would like some reassurance for once, in the form of a soil test. "We don't think they just go around building dirt mounds for the heck of it," he says. "Not only are we afraid of the runoff [water], but if they spread that around, those chemicals are in the air."

For years, the Duncans have been the squeakiest wheels in town, if not the most popular. They recall receiving countless comments in public, hushed insults, and accusations. In 2004, then-councilwoman Barb Youshak wrote an open letter to the family in The Weekly Villager, telling them if they were intent on disparaging Middlefield, they should leave.

The Duncans' two children thus far have been free of the symptoms that plague their parents, though Ron points out that arsenic has appeared in the blood of one child and that the other used to have asthma attacks at night, when local plants would vent their exhaust. The children have grown tired of fellow students razzing them about their dad's big mouth, stilted gait, and unsettled demeanor.

"Doctors across the country have said, 'Why don't you move?'" says Ron Duncan. "As far as we understand, wherever you live, you're within four miles of a toxic waste dump. At least here, we're gaining knowledge of whatever we're around, and it's not the unknown."

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