Second of eight parts
This article was originally published on May 1, 2000 on Page A1 of the Philadelphia Inquirer
On Feb. 2, 1978, a spectacular fire erupted at an illegal chemical dump in Chester. More than 200 emergency workers were unwittingly exposed to toxic industrial wastes. High rates of cancer and other serious illnesses have beset the group ever since.
Part 2 of an eight-day series chronicles the outlaws who created the Wade dump, the environmental investigators who discovered it, and the troubled city that never warned its firefighters of the danger.
April 1, 1977, brought a glimmer of pride to a hard-luck city. It was groundbreaking day for Station 81, Chester’s new firehouse.
A brigade of firefighters - top brass down to new recruits - assembled in the sun at Third and Tilghman Streets. Amid politicians' roseate speeches and clerics' prayers for better times, the ceremonial first shovel of dirt was turned.
If only they knew what was happening just five blocks away.
Down by the Delaware, under the Commodore Barry Bridge, was another gathering. Cloaked from view by piles of tires, a small group of men stood aghast in the middle of a staggering environmental disaster.
Ten were from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, there to serve a search warrant on Eastern Rubber Reclaiming Inc. They had brought with them the city's health director, a federal environmental agent and, just in case, three cops.
Before them lay a reeking, three-acre junkscape of beat-up tankers, rusty barrels and fetid trenches filled with slime. The soil was splotched red, yellow and white, bright as a child's poster paints.
What the men were about to explore, recalled DER agent Bruce Beitler, "was the most uncontrolled . . . horrendous facility I've ever seen."
Inside a two-story warehouse, they found thousands of stacked, leaking drums emitting fumes that sickened them. Beitler jotted down the words he saw stenciled on a few barrels: Sodium copper cyanide . . . benzene . . . hexane.
Judging from the stench of solvents, he said, "it was obvious that much of the material was volatile."
An obvious danger to Beitler, but apparently not to the owner, one Melvin Rogers Wade.
Newly listed in Who's Who in America - "rubber co. exec." - Wade stood in the muck in his gleaming dress shoes, wondering aloud what all the fuss was about.
The answer would have to come from a lab. DER agents used pint jars to scoop samples from the pits that dotted the grounds.
The searchers stayed four hours. As they walked off the lot, their shoes were "steaming and smoking," one recalled.
By the time they got home, blue jeans were eaten with holes, and leather boots flapped apart where the stitching had been.
“I know economics. I know how to make money,” the brash young man in the plaid suit told a reporter in the early 1970s. “I guess you could call me a wheeler-dealer.”
That you could. Melvin Wade cut a flashy figure in his hometown of Chester. A swaggering fast-talker, he boasted to anyone in earshot that he was "the richest colored guy in Delaware County."
Wade had begun buying rental properties after his 1955 graduation from Chester High. He became a housing inspector in the city projects and, by the late 1960s, a bail bondsman, one not above breaking the law.
In 1971 hearings, the Pennsylvania Crime Commission summoned Wade, who testified he had paid kickbacks to police and magistrates for sending him bail business.
He was burning political bridges, but he didn't really care. He already was moving on to a new career - rubber recycling.
That summer, Wade borrowed more than $350,000, much of it from the Small Business Administration, and bought a 60-year-old tire reclaiming plant along the river at 1 Flower Street.
"I can do more with a scrap tire than [George Washington] Carver ever did with the peanut," he once declared.
Wade grandly predicted jobs for poor blacks and a rebirth for Chester: "One day, we'll make Swarthmore look like a ghetto."
The venture went bust in a hurry.
"The problem," said Keith Welks, a DER lawyer who investigated Wade, "was that he could take a lot of tires in and create lots of piles of little pieces of rubber, but there wasn't a whole lot of market for it."
By 1973, deeply in debt, Wade was trolling for cash to stay afloat. Pleas for more loans went nowhere.
"We were forced to prostitute ourselves," Wade later explained.
He would do it by partnering with two other men who held money above the law. The first was a short, snaggle-toothed waste hauler who loved beer, fast motorcycles, and the business edge gained by looking like a yokel. The second would be a well-dressed, glad-handing Montgomery County businessman who had spent years poisoning Upper Merion.
Through much of the 1970s, they funneled 3 million gallons of industrial wastes onto Wade's land, turning it into one of the worst toxic dumps in the nation.
Wade turned on the tap by leasing half of his lot, for $325 per month, to Ellis Morrell Barnhouse, better known as "Sparky."
Barnhouse owned ABM Disposal Service Inc., a firm in need of a place to park its rented fleet of tankers and flatbed trucks. For an extra $1.50 per barrel, Wade let Barnhouse store 55-gallon drums of whatever it was those trucks were hauling.
"Here's what he said: 'It won't hurt a baby,' " Wade recalled. " 'It's like water, Wade.' "
Born in West Virginia in 1915, Sparky Barnhouse had come to Philadelphia during World War II, a welder drawn to the shipyards.
He settled in southeastern Delaware County and, by the mid-1950s, was selling cycles and used cars.
Compact and ornery, Barnhouse "looked like a character out of Deliverance," said Charles Greenhagen, a friend who worked for him briefly.
But those backwater ways concealed a wily horse trader - "bordering on genius," Greenhagen said - and disarmed his prey.
By the late 1960s, Barnhouse had figured out that he could profit from what others left behind. He founded Jiffy Jon, a portable-toilet firm. Then he branched out, hauling industrial waste as ABM Disposal.
His old, two-story brick house in Lester passed for ABM's office. He kept spotty records and hired scruffy drivers with nicknames like "Mole" and "Worm."
Yet by the mid-1970s, he had a fat portfolio of corporate clients, the likes of Budd Co., SmithKline Corp., Wyeth Laboratories and Vicks.
He had wooed them with simple form letters vowing: "While our service standards are high, our rates are low!"
Tantalizingly low. For Vicks, ABM was "about 40 percent cheaper than anyone else," a company memo said. At Budd, a purchasing agent wrote his superiors: "Here's a chance to save $15,840, plus our trucking costs."
Bottom-line thinking led dozens of firms into contracts with ABM, although some had big doubts about the operation.
For starters, Barnhouse's help seemed inexperienced; most of his salesmen were former car dealers. His daughter and son also made calls, as did Greenhagen, a laid-off General Electric supervisor.
"They are generally . . . people who have very little background in handling any waste material, especially industrial waste," said a 1973 internal memo circulated at the West Chester plant of Wyeth, which stayed aboard anyway.
Some wondered where Barnhouse was really taking the waste, although their efforts to find out seldom went beyond asking him.
In a 1972 Budd memo, purchasing agent Harry Felton wrote: "I have endeavored to learn more about their company and disposal methods. I could not get a straightforward answer. . . . "
When pressed, Barnhouse told clients he had applied to the EPA for permits to dump off the New Jersey coast.
"I am looking for some assurance that you are obtaining these permits," a Vicks official wrote to Barnhouse in May 1973. A handwritten footnote on a copy of the letter said an ABM salesman called back "and sees no problem."
After which the Vicks official scrawled: "B.S."
He was right. The EPA soon rejected ABM's ocean-dumping request, having found mercury, cadmium and phenols in its samples.
Barnhouse assured clients he would get the permits. Until then, he said, he had holding tanks for millions of gallons of wastes.
He was renting those vats from Gould Inc., an electronics giant with a tank farm downriver from the Commodore Barry Bridge. The chemicals he trucked in, he told his workers, were mostly wastewater - so diluted that they were safe.
Believing him, an ABM foreman set about welding a hole in a tanker there on the afternoon of Oct. 10, 1973. The trailer exploded when his torch ignited vapors inside, instantly killing him and a watchman.
Gould gave ABM, and its wastes, the heave-ho.
Sparky Barnhouse was in a bind.
Without Gould's storage vats, "we lost the ability to mix chemicals to bring the pH levels down to neutral so you could legitimately discharge it," said Greenhagen, who became foreman after the explosion.
Barnhouse "wanted the business to be on the up-and-up," he said. "But to compete, he had to get into illegal dumping because everyone else was doing it."
In Philadelphia, that took bribes.
Barnhouse wanted to dump at the city-owned Fort Mifflin landfill in Southwest Philadelphia, which accepted only incinerator fly ash. In March 1974, days after leaving Gould, he began paying off two city workers to let his trucks in and to bulldoze over the barrels they left.
By the end of 1975, ABM had dumped at Fort Mifflin about 1.3 million gallons of hazardous wastes from 63 companies - onto land above an aquifer that supplied South Jersey with drinking water.
The arrangement cost Barnhouse $29,000 in bribes. Hoping to claim them as tax write-offs, he made the weekly payments with ABM checks - much to the eventual delight of Philadelphia prosecutors.
Any deductions were welcome. In 1974, according to Greenhagen, ABM grossed roughly $1 million, with a profit margin of 30 to 40 percent - enough for Barnhouse to pilot his own airplane, drive a late-model Mercedes, and keep a condo and a boat in Fort Lauderdale.
ABM was collecting so much waste, not even Fort Mifflin could swallow it all.
But the suburbs could.
In Montgomery County, Barnhouse found a prominent trash hauler willing to do business. For three years, ABM trucks trundled onto William O'Hara's lot in Upper Merion and poured chemicals down a hidden well.
O'Hara said Barnhouse had passed off ABM's cargo as just treated wastewater. "I knew they took hot chemicals," O'Hara said, "but I didn't think they were dumping them in my place."
Barnhouse, meanwhile, ingratiated himself in Upper Merion, sometimes flying businessmen and public officials to Florida, Greenhagen said. On a 1974 jaunt with O'Hara, the township police chief died of a heart attack in Barnhouse's condo.
It took no sun-and-surf junkets to sign up Melvin Wade, just cash.
Nearly every day, ABM drivers delivered one or two truckloads of barrels to Wade's lot at 1 Flower Street, where his collection of mostly day laborers unloaded them. Whenever Wade couldn't scrape up a few hundred bucks for his payroll, and he often couldn't, he emptied some drums and resold them for $4 each.
The property was being poisoned, and the missing mosquitoes should have been a tip-off. Normally on warm evenings, the insects along the river were relentless - at least until the chemicals started to flow.
"Throwing that stuff out there, we could work nights because there were no more mosquitoes. . . . " Wade said. "I said, 'Man, this is great.' "
Not that there was enough work to stay open late. In January 1975, Eastern Rubber filed for bankruptcy. Wade kept a skeleton crew, bolstered largely by ABM's rent and cash earned from empty barrels.
"He was getting hungry. . . . " Greenhagen said. "He wanted to handle all of our material."
Greenhagen refused. He considered Wade too reckless to be trusted with ABM's increasingly hazardous cargo, and tried to steer the worst of it elsewhere.
Example: a mix of nitric and sulfuric acid, produced by Omega Chemical Corp., that emitted red fumes. "I was losing the heels on my shoes just walking near it," Greenhagen said. "I even dropped a mouse in it once, and the mouse disappeared."
His fears were confirmed on Feb. 8, 1975, when predawn explosions leveled Omega's plant in Wilmington, tossing steel beams like twigs.
Soon afterward, Greenhagen fled back to GE. Within a few months, Barnhouse was looking to sell ABM.
And when a new owner took over, Melvin Wade would get all the wastes he wanted.
In September 1976, ABM was bought by Franklin P. Tyson, 50, a third-generation Montgomery County "honey dipper" whose trucks sucked sewage from suburban septic tanks. He also dug roadbeds and swimming pools, and dumped industrial wastes - in the wrong places.
Tyson had owned an old quarry in Upper Merion, six acres sloping toward the Schuylkill, bounded by streams on two sides. He filled hillside lagoons with sewage and chemical wastes from companies such as Wyeth, SmithKline and Toms River Chemical Corp.
The chemicals, some carcinogens, leached into the streams, and state environmental officials cited Tyson at least three times. (Years later, "Tyson's Lagoons" would resurface as one of Pennsylvania's worst Superfund sites, one that cost $60.5 million to clean up.)
Even as he dumped, Tyson maintained the veneer of model citizen: Upper Merion school board member, Little League coach, Boy Scout commissioner, Lions Club president, father of seven.
But by the time he met up with Barnhouse in December 1975, Tyson was strapped. His business had tanked and he owed $235 a week in support payments after walking out on his family.
Desperate for a paycheck, he went to work for ABM as a sales manager. Nine months later, he borrowed heavily to buy the company and its contracts for $165,000.
Tyson also continued ABM's bribery arrangement at Fort Mifflin and its shady dumping deals with Bill O'Hara - an old Lions Club buddy - and Melvin Wade.
Much to Wade's delight, Tyson opened the chemical floodgates as wide as they would go, shipping wastes to 1 Flower Street faster than Barnhouse ever had.
"I really got along with Tyson," Wade said. "He's in the business of slop barrels. I'm in slop rubber."
Tyson's trucks came night and day. Wade made no effort to hide what he was up to, and no one stood in his way.
For those two, working Chester was like wearing camouflage - partly because of the times, partly because of the location.
Back then, "everybody was doing it," DER lawyer Keith Welks said. "And this was the city of Chester, anyway."
Under the iron thumb of Mayor John H. "Jack" Nacrelli - later imprisoned for taking bribes - Chester was forging a national reputation for corruption and ineptitude.
It was a place where officeholders were handpicked by Nacrelli, where jobs went to his political cronies, where illicit gamblers paid the mayor $2,000 a month to keep police off their backs.
It was not a place where the pursuit of illegal waste haulers was a priority. But if City Hall didn't notice that Wade's business was booming, his neighbors certainly did.
"I would be sitting on the porch on a summer night at my mom's, maybe 12 o'clock or even 1 in the morning, and see these trucks going by," said Althea Harris, whose mother lived two blocks from the dump. "I mean, so many trucks that people couldn't sleep.
"I would wonder: What is going on down there at that plant?"
In Montgomery County, someone else saw the same red trucks with the yellow letters "ABM."
At 10 a.m. on March 21, 1977, the phone rang at the DER's office in Norristown.
The anonymous tipster reported that twice a day, the trucks were slopping loads of chemicals down a well inside a garage at O'Hara Sanitation Co. on Henderson Road in Upper Merion.
The lot sat just south of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, within 500 yards of the Upper Merion Reservoir, which served 300,000 Philadelphia Suburban Water customers.
The morning after the phone tip, DER agent Mark Rosenberg and another investigator climbed a railroad bridge overlooking Bill O'Hara's landfill. When an ABM truck rumbled by, they tailed it.
The driver turned onto Swedeland Road, then through the gates of SmithKline Corp.
Just two months earlier, the company had signed a bargain-basement contract with ABM. Legitimate disposal of SmithKline's wastes would have run from 15 to 50 cents per gallon, experts later estimated. Tyson charged 6.6 cents.
The agents were about to witness how he pulled that off.
SmithKline workers started pumping 6,000 gallons of pharmaceutical waste into the tanker from two vats. After 30 minutes, the ABM truck lurched back onto Swedeland Road. A light-brown, milky liquid - a brew of cyanide, heavy metals and phenol - splashed from a rear valve as the tanker struggled up the grade toward O'Hara's.
At the garage, the truck backed in. As it pulled away, an Upper Merion police sergeant, called in by Rosenberg, was waiting.
Out stepped Jesse James Hamilton, 44, a seventh-grade dropout and father of four, an ABM driver for little more than a year.
As his rights were read, he looked up at Rosenberg. "A man has to make a living," he said.
The agents began to follow other ABM trucks. Within a week, they were at Melvin Wade's gate.
The perimeter was stacked high with tires and other debris. So high, said agent Donald Knorr, that "we couldn't see much" except a bright-orange spot in the driveway.
The agents needed a better view.
So two days later, Rosenberg and Knorr went onto the Commodore Barry Bridge with a third agent, an amateur photographer. With Knorr holding fast to his belt, the photographer leaned over the catwalk and snapped 80 frames.
"Every single inch of the property had something packed in," Knorr said. "We were absolutely amazed."
And it was getting worse before their eyes. At that moment, two Wade employees were on a flatbed truck, spilling wastes on the ground from 55-gallon drums. Seeing the men peering down, the workers assumed Wade was spying on them.
The men wanted to please their boss - and started dumping faster.
The next afternoon, April Fool's Day 1977, DER agents dropped a search warrant on Melvin Wade.
With them were an EPA official who handled spills on the river, two Chester detectives, and a state trooper.
Also tagging along was Chester's health officer, David Chakrabarty.
A native of India, he was a rare outsider in Chester's inbred bureaucracy. A public-health professional with three college degrees, he was such an obsessive record-keeper that every dog-bite report was filed alphabetically by street. City Hall was awash in his memos.
"We almost had to have a separate line item in the budget for his stationery," said former Councilman Michael MacNeilly. "He liked to keep people informed."
Inviting Chakrabarty to the dump that day was a departure for the DER, which usually kept municipal officials out of its business. But there was nothing usual about 1 Flower Street.
"It struck us," Welks said, "that this was a problem [with] continuing local ramifications."
The group got only a bit of lip from Wade. Most remember an air of nonchalance.
" 'What do you have a search warrant for? Everyone knows what I'm doing,' " Welks recalled him saying.
Shredded rubber lay in piles everywhere. Some had been spread over waste-soaked areas to keep equipment from sinking.
Knorr lifted a sheet of plywood covering a small pit and found an underground pipe pointing toward the Delaware. He poured fluorescent green tracer dye into the pit; an hour later, he saw it dribble into the river from a discharge pipe.
The best guess set the number of drums at more than 20,000. Most were crammed into the warehouse, where, Knorr said, brain-fuzzing vapors left them "concerned over the possibility of explosion and fire."
That danger became clear the next week, when lab results came in. Many of the chemicals were volatile. Some could cause cancer. Others, if mixed, could form a lethal vapor like that of a gas chamber.
A DER document shows that someone in Chester government - it doesn't say who - was notified April 5 that the analyses were available. But the potential for disaster never seemed to register in City Hall.
"My recollection was that we were receiving findings, but that nobody knew what it meant," said Delaware County Judge Joseph Battle, then an assistant city solicitor. "It was just a bunch of chemicals."
Life would never be the same around the Wade dump. The rumble of tankers, the splosh of sludge - the DER put an end to all of it.
Tyson was still doing business, although a lot less of it. As news of the DER's investigation traveled the corporate grapevine, some ABM clients took the hint.
"Do not come in until further notice," a SmithKline official told Tyson by phone the day after the O'Hara stakeout.
But a few stuck with Tyson, who assured them his hands were clean.
Scott Paper Co. was among them. As early as December 1975, some managers in its Tinicum office heard talk that ABM was dumping illegally. They ignored it after checking with an in-house lawyer who advised: "Scott has no apparent liability should [ABM] be in violation of some law or regulation."
The rumors were confirmed by the DER's raid on the dump. Although Tyson "was highly suspected," a Scott official noted, the company used ABM for six more months.
Boeing Vertol found out on its own, by checking with treatment facilities, that Tyson had lied about where its wastes were going. Yet Boeing kept giving ABM some of its most toxic refuse.
On May 19, 1977, a call went out from Boeing to ABM at 4:45 p.m. Soon afterward, an ABM truck left the Eddystone plant with 2,000 gallons of cyanide waste.
Around 1 a.m., ABM driver David Kelly pulled his red tanker into an alley beside Nick's Tavern on Chester's east side.
The clatter awoke Stephen Wolfe, 16. From his second-floor bedroom across the alley, he watched Kelly open a rear valve, sending reddish chemicals rushing down Morton Avenue and into Ridley Creek, coating car tires and causing a fish kill.
The driver fetched a six-pack from the bar, "pulled out a bottle and watched the truck drain," said Wolfe, whose mother called police.
Kelly, 19, and ABM pleaded guilty to causing or risking a catastrophe. Kelly got four years' probation and alcohol treatment; ABM was fined $2,500.
For locals, the Wade raid was easy to both miss and dismiss.
Only on June 6, two months later, did a story appear in the Delaware County Daily Times, four paragraphs at the bottom of Page 3. It said the DER had found "a large quantity of industrial waste, some hazardous," on the property. The story did not specify what those wastes were.
Not until July 20 did the DER formally order Wade and ABM to start cleaning up the mess. ABM's attorneys stalled by appealing the order. Wade simply ignored it.
In the ensuing months, the dump "sort of became abandoned," said Beitler, who checked it regularly.
Tyson moved his tankers to a lot in Lester. But nothing else changed as winter came on.
The spanking-new Fire Station 81 opened its doors on Feb. 2, 1978. That afternoon, as if on cue, the Wade dump burst into flame.
More than 200 people - firefighters, police, paramedics - rushed in, blind.
Nearly a year after the DER's raid, no one warned them of what was in the dump. Whose responsibility that was would be debated ever after.
But Robert Friend, a fire captain at the Wade command post, would always be sure of this much: "Somebody, somewhere, should have said something."
Had the fire commanders known, "we certainly wouldn't have put anybody near it."
Instead, by the time the fire was out, 45 men had gone to hospitals with skin welts, dizziness, chest pains and shortness of breath. Some would complain of ill effects for weeks.
Realizing something had gone awry, Chester officials engaged the DER in what Welks called "a finger-pointing contest."
"Very early on," he said, "people knew that there was a problem here, and there was some desire to affix accountability or blame."
Councilman MacNeilly, who became public safety director less than a month before the fire, was a vehement critic. "I remember raising hell with [DER], saying, 'If this stuff was here, why didn't people in Chester know about it?' "
Look in the mirror, DER replied.
Hadn't the city been notified of the search warrant? Hadn't Chakrabarty walked the site himself? Hadn't DER given its test results and its shut-down order to the city?
Chester authorities, Welks said, "should have been officially on alert to what was at the site."
Joe Battle, by then the city's solicitor, said Chakrabarty "always told me, privately, he thought it was an environmental time bomb."
Which made his later actions all the more puzzling.
When the dump caught fire, Chakrabarty raced there in his coat and tie to scoop up samples, unprotected as he soaked himself in chemicals.
Then, on March 3, 1978, he sent a curious letter to the DER, worded as if he had not been at the dump when agents first searched it a year before.
"It is our information that [DER] had prior contact with the owner of this rubber or chemical recycling plant. . . ." he wrote. "May I respectfully request that you provide us with all pertinent information concerning this property."
The DER shot back: "The chemical results . . . were previously made available to your office."
Chakrabarty's files on the site eventually filled half a storage box, said James Beauchamp, his environmental health assistant.
Today, a request for the Wade file at City Hall produces a folder no thicker than an inch - all of it dealing with events after the fire. It contains no hint that Chester's health officer - who seemed to have documented his every other move - even set foot at the dump before it burned, much less warned others what was there.
Chakrabarty is not around to solve the mystery.
He died in 1994 of Lou Gehrig's disease - the same disease that claimed the police officer who had been at his side as he gathered samples at the fire.
Inquirer suburban staff writer Dan Hardy contributed to this article.
Next: For a year after the fire, the Wade dump sits unfenced, a playground for neighborhood children, a junkyard for scavengers, and a disaster beyond anything state environmental officials have ever seen. Finally, after much foot-dragging, the government is forced to confront it.
In preparing this series, The Inquirer interviewed more than 300 people and reviewed thousands of pages of documents.
At least 230 firefighters and other emergency workers were exposed to the Wade dump fire or its aftermath. Reporters reconstructed the stories of 207 of these workers from interviews with them or their survivors, or, in a few cases, from court documents. Medical documentation was gathered for almost everyone who claimed a serious illness.
Sources of information included criminal and civil court records, death certificates, and estate papers. Reporters also reviewed state workers' compensation records, which include medical summaries and doctors' testimony. Company memos and letters quoted in this series are from those files.