The Buffalo News - WESTERN NEW YORK

Praxair cleanup raises specter of deadly toxins

By T.J. PIGNATARO

News Northtowns Bureau

3/22/2002

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 states.

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?"

Manhattan Project

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.

Nonetheless, Conroy 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."

Workers complain

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 cancer.

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.

Skeptical over the years

Beyond 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 us."

A connection to work

In fact, 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 family."

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."

e-mail: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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