by Jeffrey Hastings
“You know what that is don’t ya?” my older brother was asking.
“No idea. What is it?”
“It’s the waste from the Manhattan Project. You know, the A-Bombs dropped on Japan. That thing is crammed full of the radioactive waste left over from the Manhattan Project,” he said with a bitter smile. “Surprise, surprise, sur-prise.”
My brother Bruce and I were standing on the rear patio of my father’s house, swigging beers as my dad was readying steaks for the grill. It was the early 1980s, and we were both on break from college and back home visiting my father and stepmother. What we were looking at was a large concrete silo that rose above the neighboring apple orchard and jabbed the western sky. It had been such a familiar part of the sunsets of my youth that I’d never given it much thought.
“Yeah,” he continued, “don’t you remember that old military installation behind the high school—how everyone said it was toxic? How people used to say they shot mutated, deformed deer around there, or that they found stinky green slime oozing out of the ground? Turns out that some of that talk might have been true. At least part of it’s true. Read about it in the paper. One of the things definitely stored there is nuclear waste.”
I was used to toxic talk. We’d grown up in Western New York State, a couple miles south of a sleepy little hamlet called Ransomville, in a rural portion of the Town of Lewiston. We were tucked in the state’s northwest corner, in Niagara County, not far from where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario. During the 1970s, problems with chemical waste had cropped up all over the region, in and around cities like Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Lockport. We were, in fact, just ten miles or so north of the most infamous case of residential contamination to date: Love Canal. And now, another hometown headline in what had been an incessant string of allegedly lethal local let-downs. Now my brother was telling me we’d grown up within spitting distance of a nuclear dump.
Nuclear waste. Wow. I got another beer.
I didn’t dwell on it back then; didn’t have the inner capacity left to try and put it into context and process it. Still an adolescent in so many ways, maybe I was just plain tired of glancing back at the nearby landscape of a childhood I remembered as being riddled with painful purple bruises and broad, festering scabs. A thousand times I’d wondered if I’d ever, ever be free from it—the dusty, leaden bondage of being a sad rural kid.
And I’d just about shook it. I was living in the city and felt welcomed and included among its endless distractions and comforting anonymity. I had already begun to run. Nuclear waste? I didn’t really care. I was young, I was smart, and I was planning on leaving that whole wretched shithole far behind.
Of course, you can never leave your childhood. The farther you distance yourself from it, the more it swells, gains gravitational heft, reveals mythic import. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can try to leap out of it, but it sticks to you and snaps you back. You can try and grow out of it, but, in order to genuinely expand yourself, you must constantly inspect your foundation. When there are cracks there, they need to be addressed, and, in facing them, you face the concrete components of all that truly defines and supports you. The shaky shims and shams that prop up your adult life are then revealed, in stark contrast, for what they truly are—ongoing improvisations built atop stuff that really matters, stuff that continues, stuff that isn’t going away: genes, family, roots, your bawling, naked self.
Time passed and my own kids arrived. I watched them begin to grow and thrive and create joy so frank and fresh I felt ashamed in its presence. I learned fatherhood was not a mere role. It was a state of being that contained symbiotic love and dread in commingled proportions I could have never imagined before holding my first child. And it was fatherhood that started sucking me back there, back to Ransomville, back to reconsider my father, back to try and steal just an imagined taste of his pain—back to catch a fleeting glimpse of the horrors he once faced.
I can’t say exactly why I started going back to Ransomville, but I think it had to do with having forgotten something there that I needed to retrieve before it was too late, before it dried out and got stale and spoiled and unusable. I think part of me knew that, almost 25 years ago, I’d picked up and left the top of my joy and the bottom of my sorrow in Ransomville.
My mind went back there more and more, and each time it did, all those latent questions I’d tried so long to bury resurfaced: was it really true, what my brother had said? Had that stuff really been sitting right next to our hometown, and we hadn’t known? And, most importantly, if it was true, could the proximity to the dump site have impacted the health of the family I grew up with and, perhaps, the family that was growing up with me?
Recently, when I heard the federal government was beginning to acknowledge the risks to which workers involved in the production of Manhattan Project materials were unknowingly exposed, I decided to find out as much as I could about the dump. If the government was suddenly recognizing that it had poisoned the people who processed the materials necessary for the testing and production of the atomic bombs that ended World War II ,did that site hold some of those materials? Might there be new information about the hazards it has posed to nearby residents—like my family—for the last sixty years?
I felt I had to look into it. Here’s a bit of what I found out:
The site is known as the (Former) Lake Ontario Ordnance Works or LOOW, a large parcel of land—7,500 acres before portions were sold off—that was bought by the Department of Defense during World War II. The acreage was purchased from local farmers who either sold their land willingly or were evicted. The government manufactured TNT on the property, but only for about nine months during 1941 and 1942. An effort was made to blend the facilities into the rural surroundings, a landscape characterized by fruit orchards, vineyards, and small dairy farms. The structures on the site were built to look like barns. The operation had its own power plant, emergency medical facility, fire department, waste treatment system and water supply system.
The TNT plant left a chemical legacy of its own—a pipeline network clogged with TNT residue and byproducts, the Corps-supervised cleanup of which was still ongoing in 2002—some 60 years after the site opened. But the TNT operation was only the beginning of many activities that would contaminate the site. These activities are attributable to the government agencies responsible for the operations there—chronologically, the Manhattan Engineering District, the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration, and the Department of Energy—and to the private companies which were sold portions of the site after 1945.
The property today is a stew of hazardous waste piled upon more hazardous waste, a blend of the chemically toxic, the organically volatile and semi-volatile, and the radioactive. It was also the home of a depot of chemical and biological weapons, and may still contain some of those materials. There are, in fact, at least 50 underground storage tanks onsite, the contents of which, the Army Corps of Engineers admits, are not fully known.2
The portion of LOOW that contains the majority of the radioactive waste is now known separately as the Niagara Falls Storage Site and there are also other parcels of the original LOOW property now separately identifiable, but, for the purpose of simplicity and brevity, I will refer to the entire area generically as LOOW.
In 1944, as the U.S. military was working feverishly to develop atomic weapons in secret efforts popularly known as “The Manhattan Project,” the dumping of nuclear waste on the LOOW site began. My mother, who’d lived in nearby Ransomville her whole life, would have been seven years old at the time the trucks started rolling into the area. It was a big operation. And it was a sloppy one. In 1980 The New York Times reported that the site contained over 20,000 tons of radioactive residues. The silo that we could see from my house—a 165-foot-tall structure designed to hold water—contained 1,700 tons of atomic waste. It had an opening at the top which allowed radon—the gas generated by the decay of the radium it contained—to freely escape.
But the silo—The Tower, as it was known locally—was only the most visible portion of a much larger sum: over 10,000 tons of atomic waste were said to be stored in drums in old LOOW buildings and, the same article revealed, “more than 8,000 tons of radioactive material were left exposed on the ground.” The article also cited a chilling 1949 Department of the Interior document reporting that, when the storage tanks had become full, radioactive liquids were intentionally spilled on the ground to get rid of them.3 It takes little imagination to guess what becomes of 8,000 tons of radioactive contaminants left exposed on swampy property. In Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America's Experience with Atomic Radiation, the authors speculated that the material probably "washed into nearby creeks, three of which empty into Lake Ontario."4
It would be a great help to anyone interested in finding out the truth about such contaminated waste sites if there were a few more government documents on the history of operations at LOOW half as candid and revealing as that Department of the Interior report, hacked out on a typewriter over half a century ago. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The record-keeping relating to the LOOW site was as sloppy as the wastes dumped there. Consequently, no one is certain exactly what the site contains, as a few of the private buyers of portions of LOOW land have since discovered.
One group of unsuspecting businessmen bought a 776-acre parcel and established a hunt club, on an area officially labeled as “buffer zone.” A facility called the Northeast Chemical Warfare Depot was once located there, and the grounds are possibly the grave site for decaying containers of mustard gas and phosgene, surplus chemical weapons from WWII.5 A 1970 survey by the Atomic Energy Commission also found acreage on this privately owned portion of the site to be—inexplicably, if one considers government documents as the sole source of information—radioactively contaminated. The government took steps to clean up 95 acres of that mess in 1972 by scraping the contaminated topsoil and re-depositing it into the federally owned portions of the dump.
The government also attempted to clean up radioactive soil on portions of the 130 of LOOW that had been sold to John Syms, who had purchased the parcel in 1970 in the hopes of establishing an industrial park . He was just starting to get tenants and make money when his hopes were dashed. In 1972, radioactive waste was discovered on the property, as were toxic and explosive chemicals left over from the TNT factory and from a rocket fuel plant operated by the Olin Corporation, an outfit that occupied the grounds after the TNT plant had been decommissioned.
It was another government agency, in this case a state one, that forbade the use of the property. The New York State Department of Health issued an abatement in 1972, prohibiting any use of his land due to radioactive contamination.
The Federal government had sold Mr. Syms the property with no warning of its potential hazards; the state government refused to let him use it. Some 30 years after his purchase, he filed a suit against the U.S. Government and the Olin Corporation for the contamination of the property.6 Recently, Syms died in his lonely office on the contaminated site—a defeated victim of a tangled, toxic mess that had outlived him and his efforts to unravel it, expose it, and receive compensation for the damage it had caused him.
Not all of the interests that had purchased portions of former LOOW land have been as unhappy with it as Syms. Some have thrived there, feeling right at home on the poisoned property.
On top of the dark history of government activities on the site is the continuing history of the private polluters that were sold parcels of LOOW beginning in the 1960s. The land was sold to companies in the business of disposing some of the world’s most toxic chemicals, companies that have decidedly shady reputations and spotty pedigrees. The names of these companies have changed since the 60s; these nominal changes seem to typically accompany mounting allegations of environmental misconduct. SCA Chemical Services, Chem-Trol, and Chemical Waste Management are among the most notorious names attached to chemical disposal operations on the property.
What have their contributions been to the former LOOW site? In 1984, The New York Times quoted Paul E. Counterman, then chief of the Bureau of Hazardous Waste Technology for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, regarding the contents of the SCA Chemical Services dump. He stated the site contained “just about every hazardous waste you can name.”7
One has to wonder why the government chose to sell the supposedly uncontaminated portions of its site to private concerns set only on contaminating the grounds further. The subsequent materials dumped in these parcels are arguably as hazardous as those present at the time of the sale and one has to wonder: Did the government sell portions of the site to polluters in order to obscure its culpability in anticipation of a time when area citizens might begin to realize the dangers to which they’d, unknowingly, been exposed?
In October 2001, the Environental Law Institute published a partial inventory of known substances on just two portions of the former LOOW: Chemical and Radiation Environmental Risk Management at the Crossroads: Case Studies.8 The “Primary Contaminants” listed in the report are:9
This chemical stew—merely a partial list of pollutants found within only a small potion of the former LOOW site—represents a stunningly wide range of potential hazards, from the sorts of solvents people began to acknowledge as poisonous and purged from beneath their kitchen sinks and the shelves of their shops and garages in the 1950s, to heavy metals recognized as toxic when concentrated in unnatural quantities, to radio nuclides and chemicals the effects of which are only now beginning to be understood.
How high are levels of radioactivity on the LOOW site? Clearly they vary widely across the property. In 1980, it was reported that radioactive “hot spots” on the property had radiation readings 1,000 times higher than those normal for the region. The same article reported that the central drainage ditch on the property had been found to contain radium with radioactive concentrations over 300 times higher than the state’s recommended maximum exposure level, plus high concentrations of radioactive lead.10 The ditch connects to three creeks that flow into Lake Ontario, and at least one that flows through Ransomville.
In 1985, following the dismantling of the concrete silo, the radioactive waste it had contained, along with nuclear materials from other portions of the site, were consolidated in a ten acre “cell” that had formerly been the basement of a Department of Defense facility. The basement had been lined with a membrane set in clay walls, and it was capped with clay once filled. Though it was an improvement to the openly exposed mode of storage (and spillage) of nuclear wastes that had preceded it for 40 years, ten years later it was becoming clear that the new method of containment was destined to fail. The Buffalo News reported that a National Research Council study concluded in 1995 that the nuclear materials at the site represented a great potential risk to the public if they were left onsite permanently.
But relocating the waste may not be feasible. Where can you take 20,000 tons of nuclear waste?
The Army Corps of Engineers project manager for the site told The Buffalo News that the Corps would be reluctant to penetrate the cell, which had been sealed since its radioactivity was last measured 1985. She characterized the level of radioactivity at the time as ,“very high,”11 a disturbing statement given the Corps’ reputation for making conservative characterizations. In the same article a local chemist speculated that the site was already leaching radium and a biophysicist called the ground at the site, located on a fault line, “very unstable.”
In short, LOOW contains massive amounts of hazardous wastes that aren’t going to disappear anytime soon, and big questions continue to loom: How will the site affect the surrounding communities in the future? What damage may have already been done to the 140,000 people who currently live within ten miles of the site? How was my family affected back in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s?
Though cause-and-effect relationships between specific toxic wastes and illnesses are often under-investigated and difficult to establish, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry, nearly all of the substances listed earlier as “Primary Contaminants” of LOOW are known to cause a wide range of health problems. Several are known carcinogens—1,4 dichlorobenzene, bis(chloromethyl)ether, acronitrile, hexachlorobenzene, trichloroethylene, nitrobenzene and radon, to name a few. And exposure to radium, thorium and benzene are linked specifically to leukemia, among other cancers and health problems.12 Trichloroethylene, or TCE, has also recently been linked to leukemia, and was the prime suspect in a cluster of childhood leukemias in Worster, Massachusetts.13 Radon, allowed to freely escape LOOW for years, has been long understood to cause lung cancer and has also been associated with other cancers, including leukemia.14
Though the information that can be found at present about the effects of radioactive and chemical pollution on humans is often inconclusive and sometimes contradictory, there is evidence proving that the government understood the basic risks associated with nuclear wastes, even back in the 1940s. A 1948 memo from the Atomic Energy Commission--the agency responsible for the LOOW site in the years just following World War II--stated for example that the commission should assume responsibility for tracking the contamination of underground water supplies near radioactive dumpsites, warning neighbors of hazards, and possibly making settlements for contamination.15
None of that action took place in the ensuing three decades, not from the AEC, or any other federal agency. There were no efforts to warn residents near LOOW about the hazards of the sites. In 1953, AEC officials did issue a memo stating that construction crews working at the LOOW site would be exposed to elevated levels of radiation. The AEC knew of the threat and saw fit to disclose it to onsite management, yet it neglected to inform the public.
Neighbors of LOOW waited a good, long while before information about the area’s toxicity was revealed to them. Stunningly, it wasn't until 1981—40 years after the TNT plant had been established and the LOOW site created—that the U.S. Department of Energy began acknowledging to the public that the property contained radioactive materials.
As jarring as it is to learn of the severity and scope of pollutants LOOW contains, it is the lack of public disclosure that still strikes me as the central obscenity in this case.
It was these sorts of dead-ends that led to the creation of the New York State Assembly Task Force on Toxic Substances, which was charged with investigating the site. When the Task Force released its report, it was highly critical of the Atomic Energy Commission, accusing it of a pattern of misinforming and misleading the public. As an example of federal misinformation, the Task Force cited the fact that the AEC had repeatedly minimized the quantity of radioactive waste stored at LOOW. The AEC has stated, for example, that "relatively small quantities of radioactive contaminated material" were stored at LOOW.16 The Task Force confirmed that there was actually 20,000 tons of radioactive material—hardly a small quantity. The site, in fact, ranks among the world's largest concentrates of radium-226.17
The Army Corps of Engineers, which now oversees the federally funded cleanup efforts of the most contaminated portions of the original LOOW property, is acutely aware that a history of government deception proceeds the agency’s involvement in the site. The Corps is therefore naturally suspect of perpetuating a public relations tradition characterized by prevarication, equivocation and omission. The Corps' Website contains a document designed to refute public perceptions of its ongoing LOOW operations. In the document, the agency presents "myths," such as statements impugning the Corps for "lying," and being "untrustworthy." Another statement questions the Corps as an inappropriate agency for overseeing the cleanup since it was also an agent of the Manhattan Project—the original source of the pollution. The Corps then presents a "fact" to counter each "myth."
The lack of good information about the potential horrors that may someday fully reveal themselves at the LOOW site make it a downright creepy place to investigate. What I could easily find out about it was scary enough. It’s what I—and other curious citizens—haven’t quite been able to substantiate that is really frightening. For instance, a U.S. Department of Energy project engineer, who was associated with Navy experiments conducted at an atomic lab in Rochester to determine the effects of radiation on animals, said that the remains of the animals are buried near the center of the LOOW site. No records regarding the disposal can be found. Similar experiments in which humans were injected with plutonium, radium and other radioactive substances—with predictably gruesome results—are also known to have taken place and some make the macabre speculation that the contaminated human body parts wound up at the site and rest among other unsubstantiated materials related to chemical and even biological warfare.19 Instead of scientific substantiation, grim speculation seems to lie at the end of every dark avenue of investigation concerning the site.
As a high school kid, attending Lewiston-Porter schools, a campus built on former LOOW property, property long suspected of being contaminated, I had often heard the "mutant deer" stories. The stories were standard school bus fare, and contained all of the ghastly elements and mysterious atmospherics essential to classic local folklore. There was a certain class of rural, adolescent boys that kept these toxic tales in circulation, retelling and embellishing them.
There were deer, the stories went, that could be found on the property behind the schools that were hideously deformed: some had multiple heads; others missing or grotesquely misshapen limbs; some, it was said, grew to Moose-like proportions, while others were pathetically stunted; and, of course, some actually glowed in the dark.
Having grown up with these tales, I was shocked when I read an article mentioning that there had, in fact, been an actual deer study performed at the LOOW site by a nuclear physicist Dr. Marvin Resnikoff from the University of Buffalo,. The 1981 study disclosed 15 abnormalities had been found in 20 deer captured near the site. Initial autopsies showed high amounts of radium and cesium in four deer livers.20
After a long search leading to nothing but dead-ends, there finally was a chance to get some solid answers, to talk to a scientist who actually had first-hand knowledge of this place, who knew stuff about it, who had seen it and smelled it.
Dr. Resnikoff had left academia and was working as a Senior Associate for Radioactive Waste Management Associates in New York City, where he specializes in advising on the transport of nuclear waste. I decided to call him.
Dr. Resnikoff was guarded and reticent on the phone. Initially, he was prone to answer questions in "yes or no" fashion, perhaps a function of his personality or a natural consequence of working in a litigious field. I quickly gathered that I was not going to hear stories in any way resembling those I'd heard on the school bus twenty-five years ago. He told me that, yes, he was familiar with LOOW and, yes, he remembered the study he did on the deer population there back in the early 1980s. When I asked him if he could tell me a little about the study, he said matter-of-factly "I'll tell you that the results should be considered inconclusive." There was a pause. It was an answer I hadn't expected. "That is to say, I think we obtained dirty readings."
I could tell he didn't want to elaborate on the study, and I did not press him. He was dismissing his own published work and—no matter what his motivations for doing so—I didn’t have the heart to ask him to elaborate if he didn’t want to. He was a bit more forthcoming when I asked him what he remembered about the LOOW site.
"It was a mess," he said. "I remember the underground network of tunnels; old pipelines ran everywhere. The buildings were all in complete disrepair, practically falling down, barrels of uranium up in the rafters... There was this old concrete silo there full of waste, and there was this hole at the top. It was wide open, letting all the radon gas escape. The site itself was completely open back then. Anyone could get in there and wander around."
I thanked Dr. Resnikoff for his time. I was a bit disappointed, though. Somehow, I'd naively expected one man to tell all. Instead I’d hit another dead-end—more inconclusive findings. Nothing he’d told me was exactly breaking news. Back in 1981, the New York State Assembly Task Force had already determined that, yes, both local air and the local water table had been contaminated.22 I’d wanted him to tell me how bad it was; what that knowledge meant. Still, it had been uniquely satisfying, somehow, to speak with someone who knew anything at all about this stuff. I decided to try and speak to others.
I next telephoned a man named Louis Ricciuti. He was the co-author of a series of articles entitled The Bomb that Fell on Niagara, which had originally appeared in a Buffalo-area magazine in the spring of 2001. I’d read them all with feverish interest. They focused on the legacy of nuclear and chemical pollution in Niagara County and alluded to much of the same research material I’d uncovered.
There was something in these articles that I hadn’t found elsewhere, though—a willingness to face the inferences the facts suggested, to react to them personally, and to be rightfully pissed off. As I read the series and the sentiments it contained, I found the articles expressed what I’d been increasingly feeling as I’d been learning about the history of LOOW. This wasn’t just a big, botched-up mess, or an unfortunate, but necessary, consequence of the war effort. We, the residents of a debauched Niagara County, hadn’t just been dumped on—we’d been duped.
And it isn’t over,not by a long shot. As I write this , Chemical Waste Management is acting to increase the scope of its hazardous waste disposal operations on the former LOOW property. As I look at the studies outlining and grading relative risks associated with the expansion, I see Ransomville cited as being both directly downwind of the facility and ,susceptible to contamination via the creek that flows through the town a couple of miles downstream of where it runs through the area CWM occupies.
It boggles my mind to think that anyone would continue to see these realities as acceptable risks, especially considering that CWM was recently cited for mishandling PCBs and may be poised to receive tons more PCB waste currently being dredged from the Hudson River.
The problems at the LOOW site, chemical and nuclear, continue. Radioactive waste was actually added to their already huge nuclear dump as recently as 1991,23 in the midst of supposed cleanup efforts! And now, CWM has accepted the contents of Tom Brokaw’s desk and the rest of his anthrax-contaminated office!24
How long will Western New York allow itself to be the toxic rug under which the rest of the nation sweeps its unthinkables?
Yeah. I think maybe Niagara County could use a few more Lou Ricciutis.
People like Mr. Ricciuti, who happens to live two miles south of LOOW and even closer to other Niagara County toxic sites, have a right to be angry. And speaking to him on the phone, shades of his anger were apparent. There was more to him than just anger though: I found him articulate, extremely knowledgeable, and compassionate.
One of the reasons I called him was to ask about some of his sources, and to check on his credentials. Was he an environmentalist? A journalist? A scientist of some sort? After we’d talked a half hour or so, I asked him. Turns out, he was none of the above. He was just a regular guy. He described himself as “street smart,” and told me he’d grown up witnessing the toxic destruction of one of nature’s crown jewels—Niagara Falls—and it had disgusted him, and continues to do so.
It was when he read Peter Eisler’s series "Poisoned Workers & Poisoned Places" in USA Today back in September of 2000, that he got fired up and renewed his commitment to fighting nuclear and toxic wastes. The series detailed how thousands of workers had been exposed to dangerous radioactivity working for private contractors processing nuclear weapons material in the 1940s and 50s. The investigative series, now publicly available on the Web,25 devoted a nationally disproportionate amount of ink to Western New York nuclear operations. A United States map accompanies the series online, displaying sites where nuclear weapons materials were processed or dumped. There is a problem with the Western New York state portion of the map, though. The sites so densely spot the region that the tags do not all fit. The labels overlap slightly and some had to be moved out into Lake Ontario and surrounding areas so they are legible.
These days, Riccuiti spends a good deal of his spare time monitoring news about these sites. He visits them and takes photographs which he shares with others online, along with the news he gathers from attending local meetings, where he is, apparently, very vocal. Vocal enough, he told me, to have been physically threatened by Army Corps of Engineers personnel at least at one meeting. His goal, he told me, is to “raise the level of awareness in Niagara County,” and he encouraged me to add my voice to the relatively small portion of native Western New Yorkers he sees expressing concern. “What’s happened to you and your family is done,” he told me. “Now it’s time to think about others down the line and try to do something to protect them.”
It was good to talk to him, and our conversation had some lighter moments, too. As I’d researched LOOW, some memories had come back to me that I wasn’t sure were dependable. One had come to me just that day. I asked him about it. “You know, I’m not sure what this was, but it seems to me I remember occasionally hearing these loud noises coming from the area…” I began. I then attempted to simulate the noises I’d recalled by vocalizing and blowing into my phone. As I did so, I heard him doing the same thing. He had beaten me to it. We both laughed.
The noise we were making was a sustained, rumbling and roaring blast.
Lou’s sister was born in 1947 with severe deformities.
I was lucky enough to get to speak to another person who, like Lou, became an environmental activist following an awful personal experience. Her name is Kim Tolnar. I’d come across her article title “I Came Back from Death to be a Cancer Crusader,” and was struck by how familiar her story seemed. She’d attended River Valley High School in Marion, Ohio. In her late twenties, shortly after her marriage, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Her battle with the disease included surviving two harrowing bone marrow transplants. She spent 270 days in the hospital, but survived. Her second transplant “took.” She returned home wasted, lethargic, hairless and permanently sterile, but she was alive, and her leukemia was in remission.
One day her family was contacted by the parents of another River Valley grad, a woman who had the same rare form of leukemia. They were calling to offer moral support. Kim’s parents noticed the unusual coincidence and did some investigative work. Ten other River Valley grads, students and a teacher turned up with leukemia. Two cases would have been statistically normal for that population. Leukemia wasn’t the only problem, though.
typical cases of breast cancer and Hodgkin’s disease were noted and, when the tally was final, River Valley students and alumni since 1963 were found to have 68 cases of cancer among them. River Valley was a small school, and that was a startling number.
It turned out that there had been a military facility called the Marion Engineer Depot and another called the Scioto Ordnance plant, a bomb and ammunition production operation, where the school now sits. The facilities were built in 1942 and wound up being used as grounds on which to dump chemicals and incinerate a wide range of hazardous materials. In 1994, the Army Corps of Engineers had become concerned about the site and listed it as a potentially hazardous former defense waste-dump site. It is believed to contain asbestos and uranium, and has been confirmed to contain benzene, benzo(a)pyrene, vinyl chloride, trichloroethylene (TCE) and Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), all carcinogens. It sounded more than a little familiar.
Since the discoveries, Kim and her parents have led efforts to close the school--efforts that were, ultimately, successful. A new school is being built, but the project is not explicitly attributed to the pollution at the former site. The family paid a high price for the dubious victory. The issue divided the town to such an extent that the family received death threats. Kim’s father was actually shot at. Echoing comments Louis Riccuiti had shared with me about apathy in Niagara County earlier in the day,Kim Tolnar described the resistance people in Marion had to the idea of a toxic threat.
“People don’t like to have their comfortable feelings or laissez-faire attitudes taken away,” she said, “even when their good sense would tell them otherwise. At first people were active in the call to investigate the problem, then, when they realized that their property values were threatened, their support began to dry up.”
Perhaps that’s the way it always goes when it comes to the intangible threats of toxic chemicals and dangerous levels of radioactivity. Maybe there’s just a limit to what people want to know about it; a limit to how much they can care about something that might pass by their senses undetected, that they may not be able to see, smell or taste. Maybe polluters are aware of that fact, that the public has a very limited attention span for this sort of thing. And maybe that’s why toxic sites like LOOW will continue to fester unresolved, and why questions about the health effects of the wastes they store will remain unanswered.
A curious thing happened to me when I spoke to Kim on the phone that afternoon. I’d tried to contact her unsuccessfully, but she got my message and called me. She was very pleasant to talk to—bubbly and witty, despite all that she’d been through.
Within a minute of talking with her, I was suddenly struck by a spasm of sorrow so intense that I began to weep, spontaneously and uncontrollably. It hit me that I was talking to a living woman on the telephone, a woman who had contracted leukemia after being exposed to hazardous wastes and had lived to talk about it, and to be there for others. She was alive—so delightfully alive—that she’d suddenly made my loss tangible and real. She was what I’d lost, a living, breathing, interesting, loving human being—one who might very well still be alive to talk to me on the phone had her circumstances been different. Only at that moment, after so much time has passed, did I fully understand what that means.
And it may be the only thing of any real value that I can take away from this experience, the experience of having revisited Ransomville one last time. I may never find solid answers about precisely what happened there, but I have found, at last, the bottom of my grief. It can come now. And, maybe, when it has passed, I will rediscover the top of my joy.
My mother, Margaret Ann Hastings, a lifelong resident of Ransomville, died of leukemia after a lengthy battle in 1976. She was 39 years old.
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