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

Fifth of eight parts

This article was originally published on May 4, 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.

In Part 5 of an eight-day series, prices are paid for the years of wanton dumping.

Less than two months after his cancerous thyroid was removed, Fire Capt. Vincent “Moose” McLaughlin resumed command of Chester’s “A” Platoon.

His men were amazed to see him back so soon. Then again, it was classic Moose. Always the warrior.

Every year, he had charged off to hundreds of blazes in his official red station wagon, often well ahead of the lumbering fire trucks. If someone were trapped in a burning building, he'd bull on in alone.

His damn-the-torpedoes style earned the loyalty of his platoon members, who proudly called themselves "Moose's Misfits."

"When he said, 'Let's go,' nobody would hesitate," fellow Capt. Bob Friend recalled. "They'd all follow him."

Which made his return somewhat awkward. McLaughlin had his old bravado, but not much more.

Cancer already was in his lungs and bones; the pain shot relentlessly across his chest and back. Yet he put in 10-to-14-hour shifts and worked radiation treatments around them, which sapped him further.

"He was still recognized as the leader," said Jack Gresch, one of his firefighters. "But if something needed to be done, we'd say, 'We got it.' "

As months went by and his strength ebbed, he hid his despair with wisecracks at work, but not always at home. He would lash out, then apologize.

"He told me, 'It's not you, hon. It's not you I'm mad at,' " his wife, Judy, said.

She began to watch him closely - as well as the gun he kept in their bedroom.

"He had talked about ending it real easy," she recalled. "I went to work one day, and I kept thinking and thinking.

"When I went home that night, I took the pistol out of the drawer. I took it next door to my neighbor, and I said, 'Tommy, please hold onto this, because I'm so afraid.' "


"No one has suffered more than I have."

Melvin Wade had forsaken his braggart ways. Facing the prospect of jail, he had recast himself as Job.

On April 20, 1981, more than three years after fire destroyed his toxic depot, he stood in a Media courtroom delivering his why-me spiel. Delaware County Judge Robert F. Kelly listened patiently to the freshly convicted criminal begging for a break.

Wade was about to become the only man sent to prison for the years of dumping and the long hours of fire at 1 Flower Street.

Getting to this moment had been maddening for all but Wade, who had turned the legal arena into his own windy sideshow.

He had been charged with an assortment of felonies and misdemeanors, in essence accusing him of courting catastrophe by opening his land to the outlaw waste haulers of ABM Disposal Service Inc.

Wade, however, saw only bigotry, and he fought back in kind.

First, he hired Media lawyer Frank J. Marcone, a solo practitioner of Italian descent. Wade's logic: "Italians don't practice law. They make deals."

But no deals were forthcoming from prosecutors. By late 1979, Wade and Marcone were preparing for trial - and squabbling.

"Mr. Wade insisted . . . that the reason he was being tried was because he was of the Negro race," Marcone told the judge. " . . . I refused to enter such a defense."

Wade also wanted the trial moved out of the county, declaring that he had "as good a chance of a fair trial as a Jewish man . . . in Germany during the Hitler regime."

With that, Wade disappeared. Marcone was beside himself. He pleaded with the judge to be let out of the case; Wade, the impossible client, now was a fugitive.

Four months later, Wade surfaced in a Philadelphia Tribune interview. A few days after, he was seen - "ranting," as a prosecutor put it - on a WCAU-TV talk show.

Wade used the forums to greet the county constables: "I've been right here all the time." He had even better news for Marcone: "I think I'm going to hire a black lawyer out of Philadelphia."

The judge did replace Marcone, but with a Quaker from Swarthmore, Richard Raymond, who had begged not to be appointed.

When the trial finally started that August, it was anticlimactic. After three days of testimony and one hour of jury deliberation, Wade was adjudged a guilty man.

Yet he beat most of the rap. The jury acquitted him of felony charges that he had intended to cause a disaster. He was convicted only of misdemeanors, which would keep him in the county jail no more than a year. He also was fined $5,000.

At Wade's April 1981 sentencing, Judge Kelly suggested to prosecutors that their catch was small-fry.

"Mr. Wade, he tells me that he's a slick businessman. I don't think he's all that slick," the judge began. "I think to a certain extent he was used, and the people who used him are far more culpable. . . .

"I would like very much to have some of the others before me."

That honor fell to judges elsewhere.

The suburban waste haulers who made it their business to pollute Wade's lot - ABM Disposal owners Franklin P. Tyson and Ellis "Sparky" Barnhouse - had done the same thing elsewhere. And got nailed for it there.

In October 1981, Tyson took up a two-year residence at Graterford prison. He had been convicted in Philadelphia of bribing two city employees to let him dump illegally in the Fort Mifflin municipal landfill. He was fined $5,000.

In setting the sentence, Common Pleas Court Judge Angelo Guarino was egged on by some of Tyson's estranged children in Upper Merion. In letters, "they told the judge what a rotten person their father was," prosecutor David Michelman said.

Tyson's predecessor, ABM founder Barnhouse, was charged in the same bribery scheme but fled the state. He vanished until 1982, when police in South Jersey stopped him on a traffic violation. He got 18 months to five years in state prison, plus a $250,000 restitution tab.

"This is utter fantasy," he muttered at his sentencing.

There is no record that Barnhouse ever paid a dime of that debt. He died four years ago at age 79 in Fort Lauderdale.

Montgomery County also got its hands on the dumpers. In October 1981, Tyson and his Upper Merion Lions Club chum, waste hauler William O'Hara, pleaded guilty to dumping chemicals from SmithKline Corp. down O'Hara's well in King of Prussia.

O'Hara got probation and a $22,500 fine. Tyson received a maximum of nine months in prison, concurrent with his Graterford term. He died last October at age 75 in Pottstown.

At the sentencing, Montgomery County Judge Anthony J. Scirica raised much the same issue as Judge Kelly had at Wade's trial: Weren't there more unclean hands?

Scirica suggested that the companies that generated the wastes should also be held accountable.

"There's no doubt in my mind," he declared, that SmithKline "was fully aware of what the wastes were, where they were going, and that they were creating a hazardous situation."

SmithKline officials publicly denied that they had turned a blind eye to the dumping. But the issue was not about to go away.

The federal government, in a lawsuit filed in Philadelphia, already was pummeling SmithKline and dozens of other companies with the same argument: Those who produced the chemicals were just as responsible as the haulers for where their waste wound up.


The name of the case was U.S. v. Wade. But the Feds never counted on Melvin Wade for the millions needed to clean up the dump. For that, government lawyers would have to reach - for the first time - into the pockets of the chemical producers.

More than the Wade dump was at issue.

In the late 1970s, properties such as 1 Flower Street were turning up everywhere, and America got scared. The most notorious was Love Canal, a 27-acre dump where leaking toxins chased 900 families out of their homes near Niagara Falls. At least 2,000 chemical dumps, Congress estimated, also were potential health threats.

On Capitol Hill, where chemical dumping rarely caused a buzz, lawmakers in 1979 gave $100 million to the Environmental Protection Agency to police the flow of toxins.

At the Justice Department, another $5 million went into a new, 18-person hazardous-waste prosecution office. Its leader was Anthony Z. Roisman, 41, a bearded environmental lawyer known for his brawls with the nuclear power industry. In no time, he was branded a "zealot" by the chemical lobby.

He made clear he was out to nail companies for the costs of restoring land where their wastes were improperly dumped.

"When we find a really dirty site," Roisman said, "the chemicals seem to find their way back to a really clean-looking company. If that's where the finger points, that's who we're going after."

EPA already had announced that it would bring as many as 50 lawsuits per year. One of the first was U.S. v. Wade, filed April 20, 1979, in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

It was an experiment, filled with unknowns.

Companies had never been held accountable for their waste once it left the plant gates, and corporate America was fighting to keep it that way. Bills that would make the generators liable - and create a federal "Superfund" to clean abandoned dumps - had been stalled by chemical lobbyists.

But government lawyers did have a set of public-nuisance laws that, while not written with old dumps in mind, might be stretched to fit these cases. First, they had to sell a judge on a new concept: that a leaking dump posed an "imminent hazard" to public health. Second, they stressed that the only way of eliminating the hazard was to order a cleanup - by the generators.

They knew the odds were against them, that they might suffer losses before gaining new legal ground.

"You send in the Marines, . . . secure a beachhead, and then you can bring in the artillery," said Durwood Zaelke, a Justice Department lawyer who had been planning the legal attack for months.

The beachhead was Chester's poisoned riverfront.

At EPA's regional office in Philadelphia, the Wade case was assigned to Joseph J.C. Donovan, not two years out of law school. He plunged right into the huge, tedious task of linking the wastes at the Wade dump to specific companies.

But by summer's end, all he had was a wad of inscrutable invoices on dimestore pads from Melvin Wade's messy office, and a growing fear of being overwhelmed. The attorneys sent from Washington to help him never seemed to stay long.

He saw himself as Sisyphus, "determined to see this to the end," he said recently.

His luck changed when he obtained a batch of ABM records. In the files lay a meticulous ledger, compiled by one of Barnhouse's foremen, naming corporate clients, pickup dates, and chemicals hauled to Wade and other dumps.

It was, Donovan said, "like finding the Rosetta stone."

EPA soon sent letters to all companies on the list, with this proposition: Pay for part of the Wade cleanup, or become a defendant in the Wade lawsuit.

Congress helped turn up the heat. Legislators finally passed a Superfund law, authorizing the government to bill chemical producers for cleaning up the worst dumps. On Oct. 23, 1981, EPA issued a list of 114 Superfund sites - among them the Wade dump.

Three days later, 32 firms agreed to put up a combined $1.6 million for the decontamination of 1 Flower Street. Six other companies resisted, however, and were named in U.S. v. Wade; the wrangling went on for two more years before U.S. District Judge Clarence C. Newcomer.

In December 1983, Newcomer issued a ruling that defined for the nation the broad powers of Superfund. If a company produced any chemical later found at a given Superfund site, he said, it could be liable for all or part of the cleanup.

"It was a complete victory," one Justice Department lawyer said.

Five months later, the six holdouts agreed to pay EPA $1.15 million. They admitted no wrongdoing.

The settlements in U.S. v. Wade cost the companies little more than a dollar for each gallon that had gone to 1 Flower Street.

The mood was festive on May 9, 1984, when about a dozen lawyers gathered at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia to announce the agreement.

At the end, they broke into applause. They thought they were through with the Wade dump.

They weren't.


Moose McLaughlin never asked his wife about the missing gun.

As despondent and angry as he was, he was even more tormented by worry. Who would provide for Judy and their two girls after he died?

Like the federal government, he wanted to make somebody pay.

By the time the Feds had settled their case, McLaughlin and a handful of other Wade veterans were starting their own legal fight. They had hired a small Philadelphia law firm to sue the chemical generators on their behalf - and to keep 40 percent of whatever the men won.

The battle would outlast many of them.

Next: As his time runs out, an ailing fire captain worries about his family’s future - and decides that the generators of the Wade dump chemicals should be made to pay.


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.

Records on the Wade fire fill more than 80 storage boxes at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection. The documents include correspondence from waste-generating companies, government memoranda, and other information about how chemical wastes were dumped at the site.

Company memos and letters quoted in this series are from those files.