This story is published in partnership with Belt Magazine and is part of a series supported in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Thirty acres of desolate land stretch across the heart of Uniontown, Ohio, a vast expanse of grass, trees, and scruffy vegetation no one can use because a toxic stew of nearly one hundred deadly contaminants festers beneath its surface. Enclosed by chain-link fencing and warning signs, the Industrial Excess Landfill (IEL) is one of more than thirteen hundred hazardous Superfund sites on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List.
While open, IEL’s broad swath of customers ranged from Akron City Hospital to the National Guard, but, according to the EPA, the waste came primarily from the rubber industry: Firestone, General Tire, Goodrich, and Goodyear in nearby Akron, the Rubber Capital of the World.
From 1966 to 1980, rubber companies, myriad businesses, and possibly the military dumped a million gallons of liquid waste and an estimated seven hundred and eighty thousand tons of solid waste at IEL. The waste included carcinogens, like benzene, which has been associated with leukemia; neurotoxins, which affect the brain; and endocrine disruptors including lead and other heavy metals, which disrupt neurodevelopment in children and hormonal systems, including fertility. “They used our town as their chemical toilet bowl,” said Chris Borello, founder of Concerned Citizens of Lake Township, which includes Uniontown, about ten miles southeast of Akron.
Throughout IEL’s existence, its neighbors complained about the smell and potential health risks of waste from rubber companies and other landfill clients. They said the landfill would take anything, from old vehicle batteries to coal ash. A local court ordered the landfill to shut in 1980, and the owner subsequently covered IEL with two feet of soil, a requirement for closure. Three years later, according to the EPA, “area residents complained to the state about contamination of groundwater, surface water and air, as well as numerous health effects.”
State analyses confirmed ongoing contamination, and the EPA added IEL to its National Priorities List in 1986. It remains there today. However, both the agency and local officials now contend that the landfill no longer poses a major health risk. “There really hasn’t been any activity on it,” Lake Township Administrator Sophia Troyer says of the landfill. “There’s no real concern.”
Some residents beg to differ. Many say they are still concerned about groundwater contamination and flooding around their homes whenever Metzger Ditch, a stream along the eastern edge of IEL, overflows. Borello, who has been dubbed the local Erin Brockovich for her activism, insists the IEL issues have “never been properly, scientifically resolved,” and that it’s more than an academic concern for those living in Uniontown. “Everybody depends on groundwater,” she said.
‘There were cancers in every home’
In the 1980s, when the IEL was first named a Superfund site, the primary concern was that toxins were leaching into groundwater. “Prior to any remedial actions at the site, the human health risks were associated with the potential for ingestion of contaminated groundwater and methane gas migration into nearby residences,” Adrian Palomeque, a spokesman for EPA Region 5, which includes Ohio, wrote in an email. “[The] EPA was most concerned about the presence of benzene, 1,2-dichloroethane, vinyl chloride, barium, nickel and lead (based on samples collected from monitoring wells on and near the site and residential drinking water wells).”
Borello and other residents readily tick off the names of neighbors who died in their thirties or forties; couples coping with cancer; a sister and brother with rare digestive issues; a buddy who lost his thirty-year-old son to cancer; elementary school children who never made it to middle school; “whole families wiped out;” babies missing parts of their brains at birth; others who never had a chance to utter a cry. “We went up to fourteen miscarriages and crib deaths just in my allotment,” Borello says of the housing development she lived in near IEL. “We go to some neighborhoods around Uniontown, and there were cancers in every home. There were birth defects. There were weird diseases. There were auto-immune diseases. There were thyroid diseases. You name it.”
In the nineties, retired registered nurse Darleen Lansing compiled a list of nearly one hundred cases of sickness and disease, which are part of EPA records. The cases include two dozen women with breast cancer who lived on two streets near the landfill. Lansing added that many cows on a nearby farm were born with deformities, just like the frogs and pollywogs along Metzger Ditch, where children would play. Lansing, who also gathered topsoil by the ditch for her garden, was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer.
In 1992, consulting physician Elaine B. Panitz, M.D., wrote a letter urging the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to investigate cancer deaths in Uniontown dating back to 1970. Dr. Panitz, then a professor at the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine at Rutgers University, was concerned about the possible role of radiation in the death of a young male patient diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. In her letter she also cited a number of patients with tumors, and the risk of cancer from exposure to vinyl chloride, benzene and derivatives like chlorophenols, which at high levels can damage the liver and immune system.
The EPA “was also concerned about off-site migration of explosive levels of methane gas to adjacent homes,” Palomeque said. High concentrations of methane can affect heart rate, breathing, and other aspects of health. When methane levels in the air reach five percent to fifteen percent, the gas can literally explode. The “border people,” who lived on the edge of the landfill, received methane gas alarms so that they could evacuate if necessary. “They slept with their car keys on their nightstands,” Borello said.
Community members have spent the decades since embroiled in disputes over the site, such as: whether their health problems are statistically significant and associated with IEL; whether groundwater flows in all directions—as originally determined—or east to west, limiting measurement and impact of contaminants; whether radioactive materials were dumped at the landfill; and whether best practices were used in monitoring wells or in collecting, handling and analyzing landfill samples.
According to court records, residents reported seeing trucks and containers with radioactive warning signs entering the landfill late at night. Charles M. Kittinger, IEL’s former owner, testified before a federal judge that he secretly accepted radioactive materials, including some in stainless steel eggs allegedly from the U.S. Army, which he said were buried deep in a corner of the landfill. His testimony, however, was discredited, partly due to inconsistencies in his statements.
Samples—mostly water—from the landfill revealed Technetium-99 (99Tc), tritium and plutonium, which the EPA said were naturally occurring and at low levels. “That argument is totally unscientific,” said Mark Baskaran, chair of the Department of Geology at Wayne State University in Detroit and an expert on environmental radioactivity who has worked with the citizens group as well as the U.S. Geological Survey.
“It’s easy to say that it’s all naturally occurring when the information is minimized,” said Michael Ketterer, professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry at Northern Arizona University, who worked on civil and criminal Superfund investigations in the EPA’s Office of Enforcement during the eighties and nineties.
In 2006, Baskaran and Ketterer published a report suggesting the presence of manmade isotopes, by definition, indicates that they had been probably dumped at the landfill. They also noted that the levels of plutonium (Pu) at the landfill were far higher than what would be found naturally in lakes, rivers, and other water systems. The scientists found “no reasonable explanation” why plutonium was found ninety-two feet deep—borings down to the bedrock—in soil collected at IEL in 1992. “It is likely that a large amount of Pu is buried at a subsurface environment in the vicinity where the sample was collected,” they explained, lending some credence to Kittinger’s testimony. “It’s obvious EPA doesn’t want to open this Pandora’s box,” Ketterer said in an interview.
Once the question of radioactivity surfaced, the IEL landfill controversy became more convoluted, which discouraged some residents, including Lansing. “The logistics of cleaning? It looked so overwhelming,” Lansing said. “I think they decided to accept collateral damage and give up a town,” she says of the abandoned plan to remove contaminated waste from the landfill. “Where were they going to put it? How are they going to dig it up without exposing workers and everybody else?”
Cleanup at a standstill at the Superfund site
The EPA’s original plan was to order the rubber companies, as Potentially Responsible Parties, or PRPs, to conduct a remedial investigation of contaminants and cover the cost of a substantial cleanup that would have included digging up and hauling away a significant layer of the landfill, installing a pump-and-treat system, and adding a protective clay cap. But that never happened, as “negotiations failed” for the feasibility study in June 1985. By the end of the summer, the EPA began moving forward on the study using federal funds. The PRPs later proposed their own scaled-back version with a “biodiverse phyto cap,” or vegetative layer of grass and seedlings for “natural attenuation.” Borello likens the scaled-back version to a “blue-light special.”
Three thousand people lived within a mile radius of IEL, most of them drinking well water. In 1987, the EPA created a plan for an alternate water supply to ensure clean drinking water for some residents. Because of the possibility of short- and long-term health risks, the EPA’s position was that it would be better to err on the side of caution by addressing water issues for a larger number of residents than it estimated was necessary. The PRPs pushed back; their lawyers countered that “U.S. EPA lacks the authority to perform the proposed remedial action, since it has not established that the action is necessary as a result of a release or threatened release of hazardous substances from the site.”
Eventually, between 1989 and 1995, one hundred residents were switched from well water to a municipal source, and about a dozen living on the edge of the landfill were relocated. The relocation didn’t come soon enough for some residents, Borello said. “Two women were tethered to bottled oxygen twenty-four hours a day; their lungs were destroyed.” False methane alarms forced them to evacuate their homes unnecessarily on occasion. After being temporarily relocated to a hotel as part of the permanent move, one of the women “died before she ever got to see a new home,” Borello said.
Health concerns prompted Lansing, Borello and other residents to sell their residences at a loss just so they could move away from the landfill—losing up to $25,448 on average, according to one study. Lansing, who lived so close to the IEL that the overflow from Metzger Ditch often formed ankle-deep pools outside her home, said talk of radioactivity was the tipping point that not only made her sell her home, but also derailed her involvement in the fight to hold companies accountable. Other residents said they became increasingly disheartened as township officials who had supported them, and some of their neighbors, drifted over to the same side as the EPA and PRPs.
As part of the revised remediation plan for the site, the EPA added the vegetative layer on the IEL’s mix of sand and gravel for natural attenuation, relying upon “decay, dilution and evaporation.” It also removed fifty-three drums of industrial waste and installed a venting system to control methane and landfill gas emissions. The original plan with the clay cap had been estimated at $26 million. The version with a synthetic cap was roughly half this amount at $13.7 million, and the final version with no cap was $7 million, according to EPA’s feasibility study.
“The site was never cleaned up” properly, said Julie Weatherington-Rice, a senior scientist at Bennett & Williams Environmental Consultants in Columbus, Ohio, who has been studying the landfill since 1990. Weatherington-Rice worked separately with Lake Township, with the citizens group, and in coordination with the U.S. Geological Survey. “They basically shut it down, threw more sand and gravel over the top and eventually walked away,” she said. “It was purged by rain.”
The most extensive cleanups tend to occur in communities with the most economic and political power, as well as in those with the highest levels of corporate accountability and social responsibility, said Mustafa Santiago Ali, who spent twenty-four years with the U.S. EPA, most recently as senior adviser for environmental justice and community revitalization and is now a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation.“Inever saw a wealthy community that had to fight as hard as some of the folks who were working class or those who were lower wealth…Certain communities seem to have more efficient cleanups than other communities do, and we’ve got to make sure that dynamic changes.”
The chasm that has existed at times between residents and officials is apparent in a 2008 letter from the Ohio EPA, responding to questions from the Concerned Citizens of Lake Township. “I must emphasize that Ohio EPA has thoroughly considered your concerns and comments, and still affirms that the remedial action conducted at IEL is protective of human health and the environment,” then-director Chris Korleski said in a seven-page letter. “However, it is obvious that you have not accepted and will not accept Ohio EPA’s conclusions,” Korleski added. “I have directed my staff to refrain from engaging in extensive written or verbal exchanges with you on IEL, as I have concluded that such exchanges are unlikely to be productive.”
The tire companies still doing business in Akron — Firestone and Goodyear — declined to discuss details about occupational health or industrial air, water and soil pollution for this series. Goodyear, which still maintains its headquarters in Akron, emailed a statement: “Goodyear’s Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) Policy is our guiding principle for all levels of management, associates and contractors to continuously improve the safety and health of our workplaces and protect the environment. We carefully monitor our energy, emissions, waste and water use and disposal and set company-wide and facility-specific goals to reduce our operational impacts and continue to comply with all applicable environmental laws and regulations.”
‘I will never stop fighting’
To this day, some residents view the landfill’s grassy covering as symbolic of how this Superfund site has been handled at the local, state, and federal levels—a thin veneer of acceptability, punctuated by holes and inconsistencies. And now, climate change is threatening to make things worse.
According to a 2019 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), two-thirds of Superfund sites, including IEL, have a one percent or higher annual chance of flooding or being affected by other natural hazards. Such activity could damage these sites and “potentially release contaminants,” noted the report. The risk of leakage at IEL and twenty-seven other sites also came up in “EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash,” a report released in 2011 by Earth Justice, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Environmental Integrity Project.
IEL has had elevated-but-fluctuating levels of methane and metals such as chromium, lead and arsenic, based on the EPA’s five-year site reviews for 2016 and 2021, as well as other tests. The EPA said it is also monitoring more recent “contaminants of concern” that weren’t factored into a 2002 amendment and the final Record of Decision, or ROD, which was completed in 2005. These contaminants include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which can affect the immune system, and 1,4-Dioxane, which can cause nose, throat and eye irritation or affect the liver, kidneys and lungs at high levels. PFAS are fairly common and found in many types of waste; 1,4-Dioxane was detected in seven monitoring wells at IEL in 2019.
Concerned Citizens of Lake Township also submitted comments for the 2021 review, urging the EPA to pay more attention to trichloroethylene (TCE), which can affect the central nervous system; glycol ethers, which have been associated with liver, kidney and neurological damage; and n-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), which was linked to prenatal exposure and childhood cancer near a Superfund site in Wilmington, Massachusetts, according to a 2021 study by the state Department of Public Health.
Weatherington-Rice sees validity in residents’ ongoing concerns about water, soil, and air pollution. “The heavy and radioactive metals are there and moving out basically forever, or until the next glacier comes along and digs up and spreads the landfill out,” she explained. “I certainly would not want to drink the water or swim in any of the ponds and lakes in the area.”
Ketterer is also concerned; he independently submitted comments for IEL’s 2021 review. “There’s no teeth to what EPA is now doing,” says Ketterer, who dealt with fifteen to twenty Superfund sites when he was at the EPA. “It just sort of feels like they’re going through the motions…There’s definitely been a change in tone away from more aggressive enforcement towards more of a live and let live kind of approach, if you could call it that.”
For Borello, going down IEL’s memory lane is akin to dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and she eventually hits a hard stop in her discussion. “It never leaves you — ever. It’s always with me, what my family was exposed to, and my neighbors were exposed to, and what I have to wake up with every morning.”
“Maybe they didn’t know any better,” she says of the rubber companies. “Maybe there were no regulations back when they dumped here. That was their claim, their argument, you know? ‘Feel sorry for us.’ But what happened afterwards, when our cleanup got taken away? It is not okay. There’s no excuse now.
“I will never stop fighting,” Borello concluded, “because I know too much.”
Yanick Rice Lamb, a native of Akron, Ohio, is a professor of journalism at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and co-founder of FierceforBlackWomen.com. This series is being published by Belt Magazine and the Center for Public Integrity in partnership with the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Lamb was also a National Cancer Reporting Fellow at the National Institutes of Health through the Association of Health Care Journalists.
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