Praxair cleanup raises specter of
MICHAEL GROLL/Buffalo News
The remnants of a secret
government project were still visible at the Linde Air
Plant in the Town of Tonawanda
when Tony Cioppi and John Lauer worked at the facility
in the 1950s. Several buildings of the Linde Ceramics Plant
were cordoned off. Workers weren't allowed to go near
them. Cioppi and Lauer, like most
of their co-workers, knew very little of the "Manhattan
Project" or the uranium ore processed there for the
nation's first atomic bomb, and never was there mention
of the potential for safety risks. Plant
officials today still insist Linde workers never have
been in danger - not those involved in developing the
atomic bomb during the 1940s, not those like Cioppi and
Lauer who worked there in subsequent decades when radioactive
material remained on site, and not those today at the
plant, now known as Praxair, as a cleanup takes place.
But in light of a recent
state Department of Health study that found higher-than-normal
cancer rates in the residential neighborhoods surrounding
the plant, former employees are wondering about the thousands
of people who worked close to the radioactive material.
"They always said
it was safe," Lauer said of the Linde managers. "But
every year, they came in and took samples and drilled
in the ground." In fact, The
Buffalo News reviewed dozens of government documents,
held secret for half a century before being declassified
a few years ago. They indicate the federal government
was concerned about health risks to Linde workers who
helped build the atomic bomb:
A weeklong survey conducted at the Linde plant in 1948
by the New York Operations Office of the Manhattan Engineering
District found 18 of 138 employees surveyed had been exposed
to "above preferred levels" of radioactive particles.
Fifteen of the 18 were exposed to concentrations 32 times
above acceptable workplace levels at that time.
Some low-level radioactive materials that workers were
exposed to "may produce toxic effects on the body
from a chemical standpoint," according to the Manhattan
Project's in-house medical volume published in 1947.
The medical team believed it could be years before some
of the ill effects of exposure surfaced: ". . . the
results of overexposure might not become apparent for
long periods after such exposure," the medical report
In 2000, the federal
government set up a pool of money to compensate workers
directly involved in the atomic bomb development project.
Now, there's a move to study the effect radioactive material
had on sites such as Linde in the decades following the
government's atomic energy projects. Representatives
of U.S. Rep. John J. LaFalce's office said they hope the
study will help workers such as Cioppi and Lauer to one
day share in the compensation pool the federal government
set up two years ago for employees directly involved in
the atomic energy project at Linde between 1943 and 1949.
One hitch, however,
is that very little of the money has been paid so far
to even people who worked directly on the atomic project.
Critics say the government has set up a bureaucratic quagmire
making it all but impossible to prove a direct link between
a person's cancer and their job exposure. "It's
a dog-and-pony show," said Ralph Krieger, a former
union president who worked at the plant for 30 years before
retiring in 1998. "Why would they have to keep studying
a site that they already know is contaminated while they
keep taking contaminated materials from the site?"
Dennis Conroy, site
manager for Praxair, which now owns the Linde site, said
the company was unaware of the specific testing referred
to in the secret government documents. The
company was not privy to very much about the Manhattan
Project because of the government's desire for "speed
and secrecy," he said. "The
Corps of Engineers took over one-quarter of this property.
They were engaged in the first step of uranium ore processing.
Did Praxair (or its predecessor Linde) know what they
were doing? My goodness, no. "Nobody
knew what they were doing." Speed
and absolute secrecy were hallmarks of the government
project, he said.
said there's nothing to establish a direct link between
the low-level radiation at the Linde/Praxair site and
worker illness either during the 1940s or later decades.
Repeated studies done by the company as well as the federal
Occupational Safety and Health Administration support
that finding, he said. In 1954,
Conroy said, the site was declared "clean" by
the standards at the time. In 1974, based on new standards,
the federal government reported for the first time that
low-level radiation did exist at Linde, Conroy said. A
government-ordered cleanup of the site - which is now
80 percent complete - began in 1995.
But the levels, he said,
are such that there's more radiation at a cocktail party
where four people are smoking than in the buildings. "People
do not understand radiation. We are very concerned about
our employees and our neighbors but there have been four
scientific studies that show no statistically significant
excesses of disease," Conroy said. "We do not
believe there is a health risk."
For a while, Lauer,
Cioppi and other Linde workers said they believed it when
company officials said the plant was safe. But
then co-workers began to get sick. Cioppi,
69, started at Linde in 1951 sweeping floors at age 18
before working his way up to the carpenter shop and as
a lab mechanic. He spent much of his time at the plant
in buildings 14 and 30, both suspected to be radioactively
contaminated, according to former workers. Building 30
has since been torn down. "When
I started there, the buildings that were used (by the
Manhattan Project) were taped off and signs said "Do
Not Enter,' " Cioppi said. "No one to my knowledge
ever said anything about radiation. It's just a shame
if they did know about it that they allowed it to happen."
Cioppi had a prostate problem in
his 50s and is now undergoing chemotherapy for bladder
Lauer, 68, of Cheektowaga,
worked at Linde from 1952 to 1991 in the machine shop
and in quality control. He says he and others worked in
all the known "hot spots" on the property. Lauer
has been through bladder cancer twice.
Joseph Cinelli, 68,
of Grand Island, started at Linde in maintenance in 1952,
and worked at the plant in a variety of jobs until retiring
in 1994. Cinelli was diagnosed with
cancer three times in 11 years. Three
weeks ago, he finished seven months of rigorous chemotherapy
and antibody treatment for lymphoma. He had prostate cancer
in 1999 and lung cancer in 1991. Just
Monday, Cinelli, with his hair growing back, learned his
third cancer had also gone into remission. "Early
detection is important," he insists.
the diseases, the former Linde workers said they became
more skeptical over the years as they heard talk of the
government removing buildings and soil from the grounds
they worked on. "When I first
realized they were having problems, I sent a memorandum
to the safety guys at the plant and asked if there was
any dangerous material there, where it was located, and
if it was hazardous to the workers," recalled Charlie
Spencer, 71, of North Buffalo. He worked at the plant
from 1956 to 1991, first as a timekeeper who visited every
building on the site distributing time cards and then
in the company's bookkeeping department. "The
safety director called me over to his office and he said,
"In reply to your memorandum,' then he pointed to
these 50 books up on the shelf and said, "There's
your answer.' But, nobody came right out and told me anything."
Russ Gaiser said the
safety director told him everything was fine. "They
(director of safety) just told me the radiation there
was as much as you had in the dial of your watch,"
Gaiser said. "That's what they always said."
Gaiser, 68, worked at Linde from
1952 to 1993 in a variety of jobs that put him in known
contaminated areas. To this day Gaiser is healthy. "Building
14 was one of the hottest spots in the whole area. I would
work in there. I ate lunch in there," said Gaiser.
"I'm still healthy, I've never had any problem."
"I believe it could have hurt
people, but then again I look at myself and I worked in
a lot of those places and in a lot of those buildings
(believed contaminated). Am I just lucky?" he said.
"But, let's just put it this way: it didn't help
Shirley Albicocco, 66, of Palm Beach County, Fla., said
her late husband was convinced his workplace was responsible
for his fatal disease. Donald A.
Kreuter worked at Linde from 1952 to 1976 as a chemical
operator before joining the staff of the union who represented
the company's workers. In April 1982, he was diagnosed
with cancer, which accelerated rapidly through his lymph
nodes and lungs. He died that August at 50. He left his
45-year-old widow, Shirley, and their two children. "He
always felt his sickness was connected to his work,"
Albicocco said. "The doctor himself admitted it was
highly suspicious he died of that cancer with his work
environment. "Our children
always felt they were denied their father. We were a close
Despite Kreuter's longevity,
Albicocco receives just $30.22 per month from the company,
she said. He did not qualify for a death benefit.
Albicocco said she's been fighting with the
government for two decades to get compensation for her
late husband. It's a fight many
of Kreuter's former colleagues support.
Thomas M. Murphy, who
worked at Linde from 1953 to 1991 and lives about a mile
and a half from the plant, puts it this way: "If
there's no contamination and there's nothing wrong then
why are they hauling all the stuff out to Utah?"
Conroy said there's
a simple answer to that question.
"This stuff," he
said, "does not belong here."