Tonawanda News

Friday, November 14, 2003

Living in a cancer zone: Tonawanda group pushing for testing

By Tim Schmitt/Tonawanda News

Diane Kowalski feels tricked.

When she bought her Hackett Street home 43 years ago, Kowalski was told the barren land beyond her back yard might be turned into a park.

Turns out the area -- known as the Beagle Grounds to locals -- was one of Tonawanda's hottest toxic dumps.

When she was asked to work late into her first pregnancy at the former Linde plant, Kowalski assumed she was in a safe workplace environment. Instead, she now knows she was in a haven for carcinogens.

And after battling breast cancer and watching her eldest daughter suffer through lupus and thyroid cancer, Kowalski realizes the effects of living and working in areas she didn't realize were hazardous. It may have created more heartache than she'd ever imagined.

"I'm sure that working at Linde did some of this," Kowalski said. "And when I look out my back window and see the spots the Army Corps of Engineers marked as 'hotspots,' I know that couldn't have helped. When you think about it, it curls your hair.

"It's scary."

Kowalski was one of about 20 people who attended Thursday's meeting of the Toxic in Tonawanda group headed by local activist Philip Sweet at the Tonawanda Public Library. The group listened and shared stories of what Sweet called "a community that has been compromised."

Kowalski, who has watched her daughter suffer through multiple illnesses, wishes she was given more information about her home and work environments.

"My daughter said to me once, 'Why did you work there?' But had I ever known what was going on, I would have never. I didn't know what they did there," she said.

Sweet's group, which is pushing for blood testing in the Tonawanda and Ken-Ton school systems, believe the effects of the Linde site and other areas like the Beagle Grounds are wreaking havoc on young children.

The Town of Tonawanda resident believes kids at Holmes Elementary School, which was built on property formerly owned by Linde, are in danger. A remediation of the Linde site -- where toxic radioactive uranium ore for the government's Manhattan atomic bomb project was processed during World War II -- is under way, but Sweet said the cleanup will create more pollutants, giving kids an unfair shake.

"The most dangerous part is remediation," Sweet said. "That's when these things are stirred up and back in the air. But our politicians here seem to have their heads in the sand. They don't want to be bothered."

According to New York State Health Department statistics published in August, the 14150 and 14127 [sic] zip codes have a general rate of cancer that is 22 percent higher than the state average. Sweet said another study showed that women in the 14127 [sic] zip code had thyroid cancer at a rate 81 percent higher than the state average.

And while he's done the majority of his research in and around the Linde site, he believes areas like the Beagle Grounds and Two Mile Creek are just as dangerous.

"This kind of thing has been going on for years and nobody wants to talk about it," Sweet said.

Last month, Sweet approached the Tonawanda City School District, hoping to get blood testing for all students to determine whether high rates of cancer exist.

Although the board was interested, Superintendent Dr. George Batterson said testing would be expensive for the district and might send a peculiar message to families.

"To suddenly tell the parents of 2,200 students that we're testing everyone for cancer might cause a panic," Batterson said. "Are we concerned and interested? Absolutely. But to just start testing everyone might be a little too much to ask."

Sweet disagrees.

"We can't point fingers until we know if children are being affected or not," he said. "Why do we have such high rates of cancer? Is it the ground? Is it the air? We can't start to find out until we test the children."

Doris O'Connor, who used to live across the street from Kowalski, remembers a time when wildlife flourished at the Beagle Grounds. She isn't surprised the activity has slowed.

"The deer used to come up to the backyards over there," she said. "They don't come around anymore."

O'Connor, who moved from Tonawanda twice, only to return both times, said her four kids and 18 grandkids all live in the area. But she's unhappy she wasn't given more information on the fields before allowing her kids to play there.

"They were always back there," she said. "It was a such a safe, happy place. Kids could ride their bikes anywhere and we never suspected anything. There were loads of kids."

So many, in fact, that Kowalski said the kids made up a majority on Hackett.

"At one point, there were 55 kids living in the 10 houses (on the east side of Hackett)," she said. "Everyone had kids."

And although she still loves Tonawanda, Kowalski wonders if she picked the right area to live.

"We loved it and I still love it," she said. "What do I do now? Pack up after 43 years? I don't want to just get up and walk out."

Contact managing editor Tim Schmitt at 693-1007, Ext. 112., or at

NOTE: ZIP code 14127 should be 14217. ZIP Code 14127 is Orchard Park.