While The EPA Slept

Years after the agency was put in charge of contaminated Middlefield, the truth came out.

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Seven years ago, scientists found a host of volatile chemicals slipping beneath the soil of a factory and into the groundwater around Middlefield. The names -- trichloroethene, tetrachloroethene, methene chloride, and dichloroethene -- meant nothing to residents. To the scientists, they meant trouble.

They can cause liver, kidney, and nerve problems, not to mention rashes and birth defects. The longer these chemicals linger in the ground, the more dangerous they get.

And yet, seven years later, the pollution is still there, in more places than anyone thought possible in 1994. Middlefield is worried. Residents still don't know how to pronounce the long, scary names, but they look at their neighbors and see neurological diseases, leukemia, and autism. Some residents say that nearly every house in town has suffered illness, from cancer to rare muscle disorders.

They wonder if their children are at risk. They wonder why, after seven years, the Ohio EPA has yet to begin cleaning up the area. And they can't help but wonder if, seven years from now, they will still be waiting.

Every morning, the hilly roads leading into Middlefield are a stream of headlights. Cars from Warren, Solon, and Ravenna carry workers along the winding asphalt to eastern Geauga County and Middlefield's factories. The biggest -- Carlisle Engineered Products, Duramax Johnson Rubber, and Kraftmaid Cabinetry -- stagger start times to keep traffic moving.

Though only 2,000 people sleep in Middlefield, 5,000 work here, creating a bustle alien to most small towns. "We have enough fast food for a town twice this size," Council President Edna Davis says dryly. "And you wouldn't believe the traffic we get. It takes me 20 minutes to drive across town."

Middlefield has historically welcomed growth. "We've always been a progressive city, and we've always accommodated industry as it came," Davis says. Kraftmaid alone has received 10 tax abatements since moving to the village in 1984.

Most villagers either work at the factories or used to work at them. Some roots go back generations: Johnson Rubber was founded in 1895. Geauga Industries was formed in 1944. In 1958, it was sold to the larger Carlisle Corporation and renamed Carlisle Engineered Products, with several factory expansions to follow.

Both companies produce rubber parts for companies like Chrysler and General Electric. The work isn't easy, but employees take pride in its rigor. "Rubber is what got this town where it is," says Al Bontraeger, a Johnson retiree who boasts of getting "blisters on top of blisters" at the plant. "That, and the Amish."

Middlefield and the surrounding township are host to the nation's third-largest Amish settlement. Horses still clip-clop down State Street, pulling slender buggies. The men sport long beards; the women, bonnets.

Visitors are sometimes startled by the contrast of picturesque barns sitting feet from factories, of buggies and semis jockeying for space on two-lane roads. In Middlefield, Amish and industry coexist: The Amish provide factories with a solid labor force, while the factories give the Amish work in an age when sidewalks and subdivisions devour the county's farmland.

Yet for all Middlefield's prosperity, the cozy trio of Amish, Yankee, and industry hasn't exactly yielded a utopian existence. Files at the Ohio EPA's Twinsburg office depict a long history of complaints -- many centering on Johnson Rubber, even more on Carlisle. Most concern water pollution.

When an Amish farmer blamed Carlisle for his horses' death in 1958, health department officials found oil accumulated in a nearby pond. While investigating an unrelated problem in 1974, the U.S. EPA discovered that Carlisle spilled oil into a creek -- which the company never reported.

Throughout the 1980s, the EPA repeatedly discovered oil and grease violations in water samples near Carlisle; agency memos from the 1990s reiterate Johnson Rubber's "steady noncompliance" with pollution laws. (Neither company returned repeated calls for comment.)

But if Middlefield's factories seemed lax, so was state enforcement. When a township trustee requested help in 1967, an Ohio Department of Health memo suggested staff "appease" the man. And despite the endless violations, the Ohio EPA has yet to sue either Carlisle or Johnson to enforce pollution laws.

So, like most residents, Ron Duncan didn't know anything about Middlefield's dirty history when he started asking questions in 1993.

Duncan grew up one block from Carlisle on Newcomb Road. The house was little, especially for three growing boys, but there was a leafy backyard and a creek. Duncan remembers his boyhood home fondly. Even today, after the new owner doubled the house's size, Duncan points out the old parameters with pride.

In retrospect, there were warning signs throughout Duncan's childhood. He remembers a friend drinking creek water and getting a stomachache so severe, he couldn't walk. Every kid who fished Mineral Lake knew to look for tumors in their catch. When Duncan was a teenager, he had six or seven teeth removed. His enamel was so eroded that his dentist asked about mercury poisoning.

It wasn't until later that Duncan started to put the pieces together. "I knew something was as it shouldn't be for a long time. But in my 30s was when it really hit me." His symptoms came slowly. First his feet and legs hurt; later, they went completely numb.

In 1993, he was diagnosed with a peripheral neuropathy -- a disorder that frequently comes as a secondary effect of diabetes or AIDS, but is rare on its own. Duncan had neither of the diseases. Doctors, from the Cleveland Clinic to the Mayo Clinic, were mystified. They suggested two likely causes: genetics or heavy metal poisoning. When Duncan's parents both tested negative, the doctors ordered blood work. They found his levels of chromium, cadmium, and strontium severely elevated and surmised that the metals had damaged his nerve endings.

No one could explain how the metals got there. Duncan never worked in a factory. But he kept thinking about the creek and the hours he played there. His suspicion grew after a brother was diagnosed with the same disorder. The two share common genes, but they also shared the same environment -- one that, in retrospect, seemed full of hazards.

"When you have something so rare, you start to think about what makes you different," Duncan says. "You think about where you grew up. I remembered stuff like what the dentist had said. And I had always heard rumors about the industry in town."

So Duncan and his wife, Laura, read the Ohio EPA files. "We were shocked to find out there were so many records, and that nothing ever came of it. We didn't expect to find that. We couldn't figure out why nothing had ever been done and why no one protected us."

Duncan retired in 1993 at age 38, convinced that his job as a postmaster was causing his condition to deteriorate. He's been on disability for eight years. And to the consternation of Middlefield, he has spent that time investigating local industry.

It hasn't been a popular crusade. Some officials say that his word is null, because he has several lawsuits pending against the village or its businesses. (He doesn't.) Then they suggest he plans to file one. "There's a personal agenda here," one official says. He will criticize Duncan at length, but only if his name is not used.

The Ohio EPA hasn't been thrilled with the attention, either. Spokeswoman Kara Allison says the agency has spent more time answering questions from Duncan than anyone else in the state.

To Duncan, the criticism doesn't negate the truth. "People have called us sue-aholics, troublemakers, all kinds of things. But we knew going into it, if we're trying to make industries accountable, someone will be the scapegoat."

After two meetings with the Ohio EPA in 1993, the Duncans were already frustrated. They didn't think the agency was interested in their story. So Laura Duncan convinced her husband to draft a letter to then-Vice President Al Gore, outlining his condition and asking for help.

The Duncans mailed the letter in February 1994. In April, Gore forwarded the matter to the U.S. EPA, which flagged the site for high White House interest. By May, a team of scientists arrived in Middlefield.

The Duncans shared their concerns about Carlisle; the officials asked about Johnson Rubber, too. They took water and soil samples -- finding high levels of chromium and strontium near one Carlisle drain -- and interviewed past employees.

A tip from one Carlisle employee led them to a concrete-walled basin deep in the bowels of the factory, which was filled with blackish sludge that tested positive for tetrachloroethene, chromium, and lead at "significant concentrations." Company officials claimed they didn't know the pit existed.

Further tests of soil and groundwater around the site showed the same chemicals in high doses. An engineering assessment noted that contamination was migrating northeast and spreading off-site. Worried that the pit was the source, the company paid to have it cleaned and sealed.

A year later, the Ohio Department of Health finished a study and recommended more well sampling, but found no serious health concerns. The U.S. EPA concluded that there was no imminent danger and handed the site to the Ohio EPA for cleanup.

Ohio EPA spokeswoman Allison says her agency has little enforcement power or funding. Any cleanup plan had to come with Carlisle's blessing -- and its commitment to pay for it.

Activists, of course, disagree. They say the agency could have filed a lawsuit. Or it could avoid court by taking administrative action. Under that process, the agency could fine Carlisle daily if it missed deadlines for cleanup.

Yet the agency declined to take either step. Instead, its records show little progress for six years. One report alleges that Carlisle was draining oil into a roadside ditch in 1996, but after the company promised to take care of it, legal action was averted. The agency did discuss cleanup strategies with company lawyers, Allison says, but the details took time.

The EPA saw no need to rush. Adrienne LaFavre, the staffer supervising the site, told the Ashtabula Star Beacon that she surveyed homes near the company and found no danger. "I don't know of any reason right now to think that anyone is drinking contaminated water," she said. When politicians like Congressman Sherrod Brown and State Representative Diane Grendell asked about the site, the agency insisted that cleanup was on the way, and there was no cause for alarm.

The Duncans grew discouraged. They formed a community group and contacted the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the Government Accountability Project, Environmental Magazine, even the City of Cleveland. No one seemed interested.

As a matter of routine, the ATSDR asked the Ohio Department of Health to follow up on its earlier study. Based on EPA records, staffers assumed contamination was only in the north. Since no one north of the site used well water, the department concluded there was no public health hazard. The department never looked at the two Amish homes sitting a few feet to the south. Nor did it question whether the pollution was more widespread than the EPA assumed.

It took Teresa Mills to keep the Duncans from giving up. No-nonsense, with a voice like sandpaper, Mills has battled the Ohio EPA over one site or another since 1993, when she discovered a plant in her Columbus neighborhood was churning out 565 times the level of dioxin allowed by federal law. The information had been in Ohio EPA files, but neighbors were never notified, and the company was never cited. After Mills started asking questions, the U.S. EPA shut down the plant in 1994.

Fresh from her own victory, Mills wanted to show other people how to fight the state agency -- or at least sidestep it. Last fall, she came to Middlefield. The Duncans' story was nothing new. "Same shit, different day," she says.

Mills urged residents to request a meeting with the Ohio EPA. In October 2000, the group pushed for the agency to test wells south of Carlisle. The agency agreed.

The results showed that two wells, both owned by Amish families adjacent to Carlisle, were heavily contaminated. The families hadn't been using the wells for drinking water. But the water contained five times the permitted level of trichloroethene (TCE), making it dangerous to bathe or even do laundry. The compound, used as an industrial cleaner at Carlisle, can cause rashes on contact; breathing its vapor can damage the nerves, kidneys, and liver.

For Andy Byler, patriarch of one of the families, the months to come were interminable. "You had to think about it every time you stepped in the shower. You knew the chemicals were in there and they could hurt you, but you didn't have any other choice." The family took cold showers for five months until the village finalized a city water hookup.

Suddenly, the Duncans had proof that the contamination had spread off-site -- into an Amish area reliant on well water. The U.S. EPA returned to Middlefield, and the Ohio EPA was forced to admit the pollution had traveled farther than it imagined.

But even after the chemicals were found in the Amish wells, the agency didn't exactly go door-to-door notifying residents. Pierre Hodgins, who owns Middlefield Farm and Garden adjacent to the Byler property, was unaware of the contamination problems when he drilled a well in July.

Days later, the Ohio EPA called to upbraid him for drilling in a "contaminated area," he says. It was the first he had heard that pollution had reached his property. Subsequent tests showed that his well's levels of TCE and other industrial compounds were dangerously high. "They knew a lot of things they weren't telling anyone," he says.

Hodgins doesn't blame Carlisle. "If the truth ever came out of where this contamination came from, it probably happened at a time when it was legal," he says. "But now it's moved off-property, and it's contaminating my property -- that's the issue." Hodgins says he's discussing a settlement with Carlisle attorneys.

Yet the Ohio EPA is still loath to blame the company. Allison says it's impossible to ascribe fault, even though Carlisle long used the chemicals found in the wells.

The agency also takes no responsibility for not testing the southern area sooner. Since the first source of contamination is spreading northeast, the second must be spreading from a different site -- the vacant land adjacent to the plant, Allison says. Though the company has owned the plot for decades, it remains empty, surrounded by barbed wire.

Allison insists the agency could not foresee the problems to the south. "Without this property having industrial history, it just doesn't make sense," she says. "Why would anyone suspect there would be contamination there?"

Anna was 18 years old and the first Amish girl to work at a major Middlefield factory when Carlisle hired her in 1965. Her job was to wash rubber hoses in chemicals, then pack them.

"It was hard work," says Anna, who has asked that her real name not be used. She doesn't want to face the same abuse as the Duncans. "It was physically demanding and smelly. Really, any rubber work is tough." Only her friendships with other workers kept Anna going until she left Carlisle in 1982.

Today, Anna is no longer the sparkplug who worked long shifts without complaint. Six years after retiring, she was diagnosed with polymyositis and mixed connective tissue. The former weakens the muscles, similar to muscular dystrophy. The latter combines symptoms of lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Anna's body is covered with a spotty rash. Her head lists to the side.

"It went from not being able to use my arms very well, then my neck, then it just kept going," she says. "I used to think, I can't wait until I'm better, I'll do anything to get better. But they told me, 'You have to accept it. There's no cure.'"

Anna wonders if the condition was caused by her job. Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic asked if she had done industrial work, specifically with polycarbons. "They said you can't prove it, but there's typically a connection," she says.

Anna doesn't want to attack Carlisle, but she was a daily witness to careless handling of chemicals. In one part of the plant, workers were covered from head to toe with black dust. "All you could see were the whites of their eyes." In another, they were covered in white powder, probably soapstone. They had to blow themselves off with air hoses at the end of the day. The chemicals used in her division soaked through the rubber coats workers were given.

"I remember dumping TCE into a sink where we washed our hands," she says. "We used cans of it every day, and at the end of the day, we had to get rid of it. So we just poured it down the sink."

Maintenance workers left the plant with 55-gallon drums of chemicals; Anna remembers hearing they were dumped behind the plant, but no one knew for sure.

Though she hasn't talked to the EPA, other employees have. In 1994, a U.S. EPA staffer interviewed a half-dozen former workers about Carlisle and its habits. The interviews, included in Ohio EPA files, suggest the agency should have known to test Byler's well.

Three employees say chemicals were "dumped" or "thrown out" somewhere on company property. One mentions cleaning solutions being poured down the drain. Two others specifically mention the area near Byler's property as a dumping ground.

The interviews were completed in September 1994. It would take six years for the Ohio EPA to test wells sitting just a few feet away.

Across Georgia Road from the contaminated ditch is the Gingerich house. In 1994, 17-month-old Barbara Gingerich died of leukemia. Her brother, Steven, died two years later, after dealing with medical problems his whole life. The boy was five.

Driving through town in their faded Buick Park Avenue, held together with safety pins and duct tape, the Duncans point out the homes of the suffering. Laura Duncan and other residents have put color-coded pins on a map to track the diseases. "There were three girls there who all had female cancer," she says of one house. "They all had to get hysterectomies."

"That family has had a case of leukemia, and he's had two transplants. They're younger than I am," says Ron, who then points to the house next door. "Every family that grew up in that house had major health problems, including my cousin."

Laura points out a little brick house, then another. "That's where all the kids died of leukemia. Over here, there were kids with heart conditions."

"You can find leukemia in all directions," Ron says. "They've had nine funerals in two years in this district, a lot out on Georgia Road." The area is mostly Amish.

Almost everyone in Middlefield drinks city water today, but that wasn't always the case. When Duncan was a boy, many families, like his, drank freely from the wells.

Al Bontraeger still uses his well for bathing. On several occasions, the water coming into his bathtub was greasy, gritty, and black. Linda Reichard, who lives down the road, remembers when the Ohio EPA tested her well in 1996 and forgot to replace her water softener. When her husband attempted to shower, he ran screaming from the tub, black oil all over his body.

Many residents have stories to tell. They talk about cats that lose clumps of fur or develop leukemia. They describe rashes that leave scars. Dr. Thomas Mettee, a family practitioner in nearby Chesterland, became alarmed enough to begin a study after noticing several patients with extremely rare forms of cancer. The study collapsed after his intern graduated and moved to California, but the state's refusal to share information from its cancer registry didn't help, Mettee says. "It was a nightmare. They protect this data like it's private information."

Donna Breedlove, a mother of three, sees "a lot of people who are very, very sick." Breedlove's own son developed asthma after the family moved to Middlefield; his symptoms abated when they moved out of the industrial part of town.

Bonnie Cavanaugh's family moved to Middlefield in 1992. Two years later, her once-healthy son was diagnosed with pervasive development disorder, which is akin to autism. Of the hundreds of people who come to her secondhand store in Middlefield Township, she estimates that one in five say they have a child or grandchild with similar problems. "And it's growing."

Cavanaugh wonders if there's a correlation. She read about Brick Township, New Jersey, an industrial community with a suspected cluster of autism cases -- and TCE contamination. "I think it's possible we have the same thing here."

Robert Weisdack, Geauga County's gruff health commissioner, is intrigued. "It's not just residents," he says. "This is information from professional people -- veterinarians, pediatricians, the like."

Weisdack is working with Robert Indian, the Ohio Department of Health's chief of community health assessments, to see if Middlefield has an abnormally high rate of cancer. He hopes to have the numbers soon. He also wants a subsequent study to go beyond cancer and look at all the village's health problems.

Some people from Middlefield have already asked Weisdack to shut up, he says. But he boasts that he's survived five heart attacks and two broken necks. He used to be a coal miner. If the results are ugly, he can take the heat. "If I step on people's toes, I don't care. People need to take responsibility. When you have these chemicals in the environment, whether air or groundwater, we're exposing people to them. And what is it going to do to these people?"

Indian spends his life visiting hot spots, confirming cases of disease, and comparing the numbers to expected rates. If rates are the same or less, the problem goes away. If they are higher, he tries to explain why. He gets dozens of requests every year, each town eager to prove the highest rate of disease in history.

Perhaps to balance such intensity, Indian is low-key. He isn't likely to conclude that a smokestack or a power line triggered a disease. His agency has no industry oversight. Besides, he believes, a connection between X chemical and Y disease isn't the point.

"One of the first things a community has to ask is what their real concern is," he says. If their focus is industrial pollutants, he says, his study is going to be of little help. "For me to say, 'This exposure caused this disease outbreak here' . . . that won't stand up very long under the cold fluorescent lights of a courtroom. To show causation is next to impossible."

Mills has dealt with Indian's department before. Its studies are designed to not find problems, she says. "They dilute the sample, they exclude certain people from the study, they refuse to study anything but cancer, because they know it's the hardest to prove. Everything they do is a complete waste of the taxpayers' money. The figures don't lie, but liars figure. And I have no doubt that's what's going to happen in Middlefield."

For the Duncans, any conclusion short of a complete cause-and-effect will be a disappointment. Laura Duncan was diagnosed with a peripheral neuropathy of her own this summer. Her condition has steeled the family's thesis that its health problems have an environmental basis.

Ask the Duncans what they would say if Indian's study doesn't find a high rate of cancer, as his assessments tend to do, and they are quiet for a moment. Then Laura Duncan says, "I wouldn't accept it."

Unfortunately for Indian, a growing number of neighbors agree. "They aren't watching what's really going on," Cavanaugh says. "If they did, they'd look at more than cancer."

In July, the Ohio EPA held a public hearing on Carlisle's plan to clean up the first contamination site. The plan centers on pulling contaminants out of the soil and releasing them into the air -- a process that could take anywhere from 2 to 20 years. The agency can't be more specific, because it still doesn't know the extent of the contamination, Allison says.

The plan doesn't include a remedy for the second contamination site. Allison won't predict how long that will take, but she says it should be shorter than the first. "Part of the reason it took seven years with the first one is that we had to do negotiations with the company to get to that point."

Mills isn't waiting for the Ohio EPA. A few weeks ago, she filed a formal complaint about the contaminated ditch. By law, the agency is required to investigate. "It's a violation of the Clean Water Act, and this requires them to do something about it," she says.

Mills also wants the agency to run tests to see if barrels are buried beneath the soil. She worries about what will happen if the contamination continues to soak into the ground. TCE doesn't always stay TCE, Mills explains. In places like Marion, it became vinyl chloride.

If TCE is bad, vinyl chloride is worse. It causes liver cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma. Breathing extremely high levels can cause death. So far, Carlisle's own tests have come up clean, Allison says. Mills would like to see independent testing.

Meanwhile, the Ohio EPA pleads for patience. "It wasn't an easy road to get Carlisle to do the things they're doing now, but they're working to address the problems," Allison says. "And I would say, if we had gone the legal route, we'd still be in court today, and these citizens would be sitting in a witness box watching our attorneys battle with their attorneys. Nothing would be done."

Mark Durno, the U.S. EPA's on-scene coordinator, says the state agency can't be blamed. "I've never come across a groundwater contamination site that's been simple. Unless you know where the source is, that just doesn't happen. Here, we don't even know if we have a source or multiple sources."

Middlefield Mayor William Poole doesn't buy it. "It frustrates me. The Ohio EPA just shrugs its shoulders and says it can't do much about it."

After seven years, Poole sees little progress. He didn't want to approve Byler's water hookup because he was afraid it would encourage the agency to drop the ball again. "I didn't want to just give the quick fix -- which is what happened." The agency promised monthly reports on the site's status, he says. Since the village approved the hookup in July, he's heard from the Ohio EPA once.

Poole questions why the agency even exists. Like Mills, he believes the only way to get anything done is to go through the U.S. EPA. "What is the purpose of the Ohio EPA if they can't come in and do their job and do it effectively?"

Even Byler, whose patience fits his Amish lifestyle, believes the agency botched the job. "In 1994, they knew there was TCE across the street," he says. "That's when something should have been done, but everybody just turned their heads."

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