Beyond the Flames: One toxic dump, two decades of sorrow

Epilogue to an eight-part series

This article was originally published on Dec. 28, 2000 on Page A1 of the Philadelphia Inquirer

In January 1979, Jeffrey Hass first set foot on the scorched, poisoned grounds of the Wade dump.

Eleven months had passed since an illegal chemical cache - millions of gallons of industrial wastes - had burst into flames there, at the foot of the Commodore Barry Bridge, along Chester's grimy riverfront. Hass, an enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, had been sent in to assess what would become one of the nation's first Superfund sites.

He spent several weeks climbing over oozing piles of debris and poking through leaking drums of toxic waste, protected only by a hard hat, boots, and basic coveralls.

Today, at 54, Hass, of Winslow Township, N.J., is gravely ill with esophageal cancer. He blames it on his exposure to the dump, joining dozens of other men who, over the last two decades, have become convinced that their health was destroyed by that 3-acre toxic cesspit along the Delaware.

Hass also blames the companies whose cast-off chemicals wound up there - and he's going to court to try to prove his point. He is suing 49 corporations in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, contending their failure to safely dispose of their hazardous wastes led to his illness. The firms, which include such giants as Boeing, DuPont, General Electric and SmithKline, deny any responsibility for his disease.

In "Beyond the Flames," a series published in the spring, The Inquirer detailed the legacy of a 20-hour inferno that erupted at the dump Feb. 2, 1978. More than 200 firefighters, police and paramedics answered the call, unaware that they were rushing into a cauldron of burning carcinogens and toxic smoke.

According to federal documents, dozens of companies' wastes had been secreted there in the 1970s by an outlaw trucking firm that used cut-rate fees to lure a large, well-heeled clientele. The haulers leased the grounds from a Chester entrepreneur, Melvin Wade, who helped them fill his bankrupt rubber-recycling plant with 55-gallon drums of chemicals.

The Inquirer documented unusually high rates of cancer and other serious illnesses - kidney failure, vascular and neuromuscular disorders - among those exposed to the fire or its aftermath. About one in five were afflicted.

Epidemiologists warned that the list of the stricken was likely to grow, because chemically induced cancers can take 20 to 30 years to appear. Anyone who spent time around that lot, they cautioned, may be at risk.

Hass believes he has borne that out.

So does Robert Friend, 61, a retired Chester firefighter diagnosed with lymphoma three weeks after the series appeared. Of four fire captains who battled the Wade blaze, only he is not dead of cancer.

Questions also have arisen about the spread of pollutants from the dump to nearby properties.

For several months in 1983-84, a small crew of laborers and tradesmen helped install fuel tanks along the Wade property's northeast border on land belonging to Philadelphia Electric Co., which later became Peco Energy Co. The fire had been nearly six years earlier, but a $4.6 million federal cleanup was far from finished.

Men who were there recall that a trench for new pipes was dug along the property line, placing them next to some of the most chemical-soaked soil on the Wade lot.

"The ground was pretty much saturated all the way up to, and in some cases beyond, the fence line," said Donald Knorr, a former water-quality expert for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources who investigated the dump.

At least four men in the work crew developed cancers in their 50s; all have died.

Peco spokesman Michael Wood said the utility - having hired contractors for the job - had no record of how many men worked it, or of how long each was there.

The main contractor, J. J. White Inc., had 10 to 20 employees on the Peco project, said Cliff Thalwitzer, former construction vice president for the Philadelphia firm. None, he said, wore special protective gear.

"They were there between three and five months," Thalwitzer said. "We didn't know anything about any contamination. All we knew was there had been a fire next door."

It is scientifically impossible to link a specific chemical exposure to an individual case of cancer. But for those who lived or worked around the Wade dump, "there is almost certainly a gradient of risk," said Philip J. Landrigan, director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "The greatest danger [is] for those who were most intimately exposed to the site for the longest periods of time."

Hass' encounter with the Wade dump had happened so long ago that a connection to his esophageal cancer had never occurred to him.

His doctor could offer no obvious explanation, having found no strong cancer risks in his family background or lifestyle. He had quit a light smoking habit 15 years before.

Hass was recovering from his second round of surgery when he read the Inquirer series. He noticed, with grim interest, the case of Mark Zukowski, who had fought the fire as a teenage volunteer and died at 34 of esophageal cancer.

"I read it," Hass recalled, "and I said, 'Whoa. I was down there.' "

*

Hass’ epiphany happened at the same time that Bob Friend was preparing for his own cancer surgery.

Nearly a decade earlier, Friend had retired from the Chester Fire Department, and he had recently moved to Fort Myers, Fla.

On March 15, while shaving, Friend noticed a marble-sized lump on the left side of his neck. Two months later, with the lump grown as big as a tangerine, he was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Friend had spotted his disease early, but only because he had been expecting trouble for two decades.

"Truthfully," he said, "I figured it was a matter of time."

Friend had been on duty the afternoon of Feb. 2, 1978, when black smoke rose from the Eastern Rubber Reclaiming warehouse along the Delaware. Assuming it was a tire fire, his platoon waded in.

By noon the next day, the fire was tapped out - but the health concerns were just starting. Scores of men had been bathed in a soup of chemicals, some of them carcinogenic. Forty-five had been taken to hospitals with skin rashes, breathing problems and other ailments.

In the years since then, Friend has seen many of the Wade veterans die of cancer. His diagnosis raises the number of known malignancies to 41; half have been fatal.

More than 200 others are still alive. Several have had unexplained skin rashes, benign tumors, or other symptoms that bear watching.

Though there is no medical monitoring of those who fought the fire, Friend made a point of having routine annual check-ups. Because his cancer was found early, doctors say his prognosis is good.

Not only should Wade veterans get frequent physicals, says James Melius, a New York epidemiologist, but their doctors should be aware of their heightened health risks.

"You don't know if you'll catch things in time," said Melius, a volunteer consultant to the International Association of Fire Fighters. "But having people in a program where [physicians] are alerted to look for problems ensures better care."

Yet most of the survivors are taking no special medical precautions.

Former Chester firefighter Kermit Lewis, 46, still does not know why his feet and lower legs keep breaking out in small, oozing sores. He has only this hunch: After entering the Wade dump warehouse as the fire died down, he fell into a pit of chemicals up to his knees.

"My boots never dried out," he said. "I continued to use them, and a few years later, I started having rashes that would come and go."

When the condition first appeared, Lewis went to a dermatologist, who could not determine a cause. He since has moved to Virginia, where the still-undiagnosed symptoms recur about twice a year.

For a while, Lewis saw no doctors because he was unemployed and had no health insurance. Now that he works two jobs, "I haven't found the time to check it out," he said.

Friend said he believed the need for health monitoring extended beyond his colleagues at the fire.

"Anyone who lived down there or even walked by there was surely exposed to something," he said. "It's not only the firefighters."

*

Kate Uzdienski remembers her father, a pipefitter, coming home from a job site in Chester, complaining of the foul smells there.

Clem McCluskey of Gloucester City, N.J., was in the J. J. White crew installing fuel tanks at Peco's Tilghman Street Gas Works, next door to the burned-out Wade dump.

"He always said that someone was going to get sick down there," Uzdienski said. "They always came home coughing."

In June 1986, McCluskey was diagnosed with bladder cancer at age 50. He died six months later.

A second case of bladder cancer surfaced in April 1998, when Michael Karpiak, a J. J. White crane operator, was diagnosed. Karpiak, of Collings Lakes, N.J., died a year later, at 57.

A South Philadelphia truck driver who hauled dirt from the work site was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 1992. James Donahue, who drove for M. Wilson & Son Trucking Co., died that fall at age 54.

His widow, Karen, said she knew nothing of the Peco job until after her husband died, when one of his coworkers approached her.

"He said to me, 'We worked a job once, and whatever was there made everybody sick,' " she recalled.

The other known malignancy struck a laborer for J. J. White. In March 1992, James Hynson of Twin Oaks, Pa., was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. Four months later, at 59, Hynson died of injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident.

At the time of the Peco project, the Wade dump already was a federal Superfund site. But tons of poisoned dirt had yet to be removed; soil and water samples were still being taken from the Wade lot and adjacent land, including Peco's.

"We knew that there was a dump there and it had caught fire," said Carmen Zaccaro of Broomall, a former J. J. White laborer who recalled seeing workers in white protective suits installing monitoring wells nearby. "We were told that some of the firefighters had gotten sick and so forth. But nobody said anything about a Superfund site."

David Walker was among those white-suited workers. In late 1983, he was a geological engineer supervising the well-drilling and sample-gathering for a federal contractor.

In a recent interview, Walker said that workers digging near the Wade property line could have been exposed to chemicals from the dump.

"The chemicals don't honor property boundaries," said Walker, currently a state hazardous-waste management supervisor in Colorado.

Samples along the property line contained carcinogens and suspected carcinogens - benzene, chromium, arsenic and lead, among others. But concentrations were not consistently high, possibly because surface soils - with depths of less than two feet - were not analyzed, Walker said.

"Nowadays, you'd never start an investigation at a two- to four-foot depth," he said. In determining how much soil to remove, "I gather they assumed the top two feet were contaminated and went in from there."

Neither were the grounds tested for dioxin, a durable, cancer-causing compound. Today, it is widely recognized that burning certain chlorinated chemicals produces dioxin, Walker said, but "in 1983, we were not doing dioxin sampling."

Because the identities of all of those who worked on the Peco job cannot be determined, neither can the state of their health.

As for the four men known to have had cancer, no direct link can be established between their diseases and the Wade site. Their jobs took them routinely into refineries and other polluted environments, and all four had been heavy smokers.

Jeffrey Hass had led a far healthier life. His EPA duties had never taken him to a hazardous waste site - until the Wade dump came along.

In early 1979, the EPA was embarking on an untested legal tack. To finance the cleanup of polluted properties whose owners (in this case, Melvin Wade) were broke, the EPA would sue the waste generators. Hass was sent in to document the extent of the Wade pollution.

Because such work was new to the EPA, he said, the agency lacked protective gear, such as respirators. He used petty cash to buy coveralls and safety boots at a nearby store.

Hass' assessments of the Wade dump helped shape the federal lawsuit against dozens of waste-producing companies. Over the next five years, 38 reached settlements with the government for $2.75 million. They admitted no wrongdoing.

Today, Hass is suing those 38 companies, plus 11 others. Of those that have filed responses, most deny their wastes even went to Wade.

Hass is not the first litigant to seek damages without having been exposed to the Wade fire itself.

John Renninger, a mail carrier whose daily route took him past the dump, died of lung cancer in 1983 at age 41. His widow received an undisclosed settlement in 1989 from the same companies Hass is suing.

Renninger's case mirrored three other lawsuits brought in Delaware County during the 1980s by disease-stricken fire veterans. In all, the companies paid 20 modest settlements - a median of $31,500 - to the men or their survivors.

As a condition, a judge sealed all paperwork in the case and imposed a gag order on the litigants. The companies assumed that would be the end of the Wade lawsuits.

And it was, until Hass came along.

His lawyer, Mark R. Cuker of Philadelphia, calls Hass' case "very compelling . . . given that [he has] a fairly rare form of cancer that appears to be environmentally linked, and given that the Wade dump was by far the worst exposure that [he] had in his work."

Cuker, who specializes in environmental law, does not see the sealing of the documents as a major obstacle. They probably are available from the defendants, he said, and the EPA maintains a rich Wade archive.

“Cases based on events that happened 20 or more years ago are very common in the environmental field,” he said. “In this case . . . there should be a pretty good paper trail.”