By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Anne Valente
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
When Mary Samsel was a little girl, she'd climb into her father's car and they'd drive a mile-and-a-half to the CertainTeed Corporation plant. Located on St. Cyr Road, at the boundary of Bellefontaine Neighbors, Riverview and the city of St. Louis, the CertainTeed plant made asbestos-cement pipe. Scraps were piled on the plant's property, and many Bellefontaine Neighbors residents, among them Mary's family, helped themselves.
Leo Mroczkowski, Mary's dad, used the pipe to decorate his lawn. Neighbors turned the scrap into mailbox posts, lined their driveways with it or dumped it into backyard holes as fill.
What was left of the pile was dumped on Maline Creek's banks, mingling with decades of asbestos slurry, asbestos shingles and raw asbestos. After decades of dumping, the creek's northeast bank towered over the southwest bank and the subdivisions a couple hundred feet away.
The plant had been around for years before homes, such as the Mroczkowskis', were built. A company named Keasbey & Mattison opened the asbestos-cement plant in the 1920s; Valley Forge, Pennsylvania-based CertainTeed, which took over in 1962, operated the plant until it closed for good in 1979. Next to CertainTeed was a GAF Corporation plant, which also used asbestos to make roofing materials. Both companies used chrysolite, or white asbestos, but CertainTeed also used crocidolite, or blue asbestos, which is mined in South Africa and Russia and rarely used in the United States.
Mixing asbestos fibers with cement, CertainTeed produced durable pipes used in water and sewer systems. But asbestos' attractive properties -- its strength and resistance to heat and electricity -- came at a price: As far back as the 1920s, researchers found evidence linking exposure to asbestos fibers with lung cancer. By the '70s, the link was indisputable; the federal government banned the use of asbestos in home insulation and lawsuits filed by asbestos workers flooded the courts.
Although all asbestos fibers pose a cancer risk, crocidolite -- the type used at the CertainTeed plant -- is considered one of the most menacing, 100 to 500 times more lethal than white asbestos. Workers exposed to crocidolite faced a high risk of mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lung lining that is almost always fatal, usually within a few months of its diagnosis. Workers weren't the only victims, something companies such as CertainTeed quickly learned. Mesothelioma was reported in people who lived near blue-asbestos mines and factory-waste dumps. As early as 1964, the year Mary Samsel turned ten, CertainTeed's confidential memos warned of "neighborhood cases."
Samsel, who had spent her entire childhood in her family's home in the 1200 block of Kilgore Drive, moved out of her parents' house in 1971. She lived her life, became a wife and mother, worked in a doctor's office. At age 47, Samsel was given the diagnosis of lung cancer. Smoking is a known cause -- and Samsel had smoked since she was seventeen.
But something other than smoking appeared to be killing Samsel. When her right lung was removed, doctors at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City found asbestos in the tissue. Sixty percent of the asbestos fibers in the removed lung were crocidolite -- immediately making CertainTeed the likely suspect.
"The blue asbestos was like a thumbprint," says Randy Bono, one of Samsel's lawyers.
In the fall of 2001, Samsel's lawyers sued CertainTeed. According to the lawsuit, filed in St. Louis Circuit Court, not only did Samsel have lung cancer and blue-asbestos fibers in her body, two of her brothers had nonmalignant asbestos scarring in their lungs. But CertainTeed blamed the cigarettes: "Our experts were of the opinion that she did not have an asbestos-related lung cancer and that her lung cancer was caused her smoking history," says Kent Plotner, one of the company's lawyers.
The case went to trial in September. Three days into the case, CertainTeed abruptly agreed to settle the case. The terms are confidential.
Samsel sued because of her childhood exposure to CertainTeed's waste. But a review of documents in the case, including CertainTeed's internal records and government records, shows that others who lived near the plant were exposed to the company's dangerous waste.
The records show:
· CertainTeed officials knew about the asbestos risk to workers and nearby residents long before the plant closed but didn't stop possibly deadly exposure.
· Government-led efforts to clean up asbestos at the seventeen-acre CertainTeed/GAF site failed in 1979, and the most recent efforts to address the problem at Maline Creek left contamination near homes, schools and playgrounds because state officials say it would simply be too dangerous to dig out the asbestos and move it.
· Environmental regulators, by focusing their halting efforts on the Maline Creek site, failed to address the fact that residents who took scrap from the plants helped spread dangerous asbestos fibers to neighborhood homes and yards.
And although the evidence is anecdotal -- no comprehensive health survey has examined current and former residents of the area near the waste site -- community leaders say they're noticing what seems to be an unusual number of cancer cases.
Bellefontaine Neighbors Mayor Marty Rudloff says a health survey is warranted. "There's been talk of [whether] anybody is keeping any kind of study on the amount of cancer that comes out of the area," Rudloff says. "It just seems like [the incidence of] cancer in Bellefontaine Neighbors is higher."
Bellefontaine Neighbors, like North St. Louis County's other aging suburbs, is a community in transition. The city's white population -- black residents accounted for just 3 percent of the city's 12,000 people in 1980 -- has spent the past two decades dying or moving. Empty-nesters have been replaced by young black families, and today, more than 44 percent of the city is African-American.
Mary Samsel's parents joined the exodus in 2001, selling the ranch house on Kilgore Drive for $79,900 to Michael and Diane Straughter.
"Everything seemed just right, on the outside," Michael Straughter says, "No one said anything." So he was surprised when he learned last summer that the asbestos-cement pipe was still there -- and so was a bag of asbestos under the house.
Straughter is worried, and, like the mayor, he's looking for answers.
Maline Creek used to meander for the last half-mile of its journey to the Mississippi River. But from 1895 to 1934, the stream was straightened, the Keasbey & Mattison plant opened and Missouri Portland Cement and GAF also set up shop along the creek. In part to keep the creek from returning to its former channel, Keasbey & Mattison, CertainTeed and GAF used waste as fill in low-lying areas. Asbestos material was used to cover what was once a horseshoe bend in the creek; today, the dump is an asbestos-filled pier jutting out into the creek.
Eighteen-year-old Albert Wiese was hired in 1935 by Keasbey & Mattison. Over the next 45 years, Wiese worked his way up to general foreman. In 1976, he learned he had asbestosis, a disease common among asbestos workers. The fibers build up in the lungs and create scar tissue, which doesn't expand and contract as normal lung tissue does. The lung's blood flow is decreased, and the heart enlarges. The condition often leads to death.
"Go to a union-hall meeting with a bunch of asbestos workers, and if everyone is quiet, you'll hear a cellophane-crackling sound," says Charles Beaman, describing the labored breathing of someone with asbestosis. Beaman is St. Louis County government's asbestos-compliance officer.
Wiese retired in 1980 and died four years later. Before his death, he was a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed in St. Louis federal court in 1980 against several manufacturers that sold asbestos to the St. Louis plant. Worker-compensation laws barred Wiese and others with asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma from suing their employers, but they could sue the companies that supplied it.
In a deposition, given in 1981, Wiese described the plant as a place where "you could see in the air, particles of asbestos floating in the air." For decades, the dust was collected outside in bins called the "dust house." In the finishing department, Wiese testified, "There was so much dust that you could just see the dust come out all over."
In 1973, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined CertainTeed for its asbestos-waste handling. The federal agency said that the fiber concentration exceeded allowable limits when the asbestos bags were unloaded from a loading dock and when asbestos-containing dust was dumped into containers.
Lloyd Ambler, retired president of CertainTeed's Pipe & Plastics Group, insists the company knew of the dust problem but took precautions: "We, as you know, knew that there were some health issues with asbestos fiber if inhaled in high doses, so we took great precautions in the plants because that's where most of the fiber release was.
"As far as surrounding people in the area, we did dust counts outside our plants, and we never found any problems with the release of fibers, in the atmosphere around the plant that would have any negative impact on anybody close to our facilities," Ambler says.
After CertainTeed closed its doors in 1979, Wiese remained at the plant, in charge of shipping out the yard full of asbestos-cement pipe that the plant produced. Even then, long after manufacturing had ceased, asbestos fibers got into the environment, Wiese later testified. "There would be some dust in the air. It would lay in the pipes and every once in a while, a big gust of wind would blow it out," Wiese said.
In an unrelated St. Louis Circuit Court case filed in 1977, in which CertainTeed was a defendant, the company admitted that it "first became aware in the early 1940s that asbestos fibers could cause asbestosis of the lung, but did not become aware until approximately 1970 of a medical connection in some instances between the inhalation of asbestos fibers and contraction of cancer."
Wiese, in his deposition, claimed CertainTeed never warned workers about the dangers of working around airborne asbestos fibers -- not in the early 1940s, not in 1970, not after it closed the plant in 1979.
Workers weren't the only ones kept in the dark.
In a confidential memo dated 1964, CertainTeed summarized a medical conference on asbestos whose members concluded that malignant mesothelioma had been found in people without any occupational exposure to asbestos who had simply lived in an area near a factory. The memo also noted that in 1931, the United Kingdom's Board of Insurance accepted asbestosis as a cause of lung cancer and that there appeared to be "an accumulation of evidence of the association of asbestos with cancer."
Over the course of the next several years, CertainTeed sent and received more information about the potential hazards of asbestos.
In 1968 and 1969, representatives from both CertainTeed and GAF attended an industry group's health-and-safety meetings, at which they were presented with medical testimony about cases of mesothelioma being diagnosed in people who lived near factories.
At a meeting held February 18, 1969, the top in-house lawyer for manufacturer Johns Manville warned that people who live near an asbestos plant or mine could be among those suing the industry in the "foreseeable future."
The prediction was on the money.
Suburbs such as Bellefontaine Neighbors popped up after the war, fueled by families yearning for big yards, attached garages and outdoor pools.
The community's men worked as butchers, office workers or factory hands at the Ford and Edsel plants, assembling gas-guzzling land-cruisers. Stay-at-home moms baked cookies for boys with crew cuts and girls with ponytails. Kids rode home after school on their bikes, without helmets, and played with steel-edged toys covered in lead paint.
The new ranch homes that popped up in the '50s were built with asbestos roof shingles, asbestos-tile flooring and asbestos insulation, but nobody knew to be concerned. Decades would pass before anybody heard about Love Canal, Times Beach or Herculaneum.
Bellefontaine Neighbors was a typical suburban community. John Duerbusch moved there as a kid in 1952 and left in 1966. When Riverview Gardens High School opened in 1957, it was one of the first schools in the nation modeled on a college campus. "We were considered the coddled kids of St. Louis," Duerbusch says. "There was a big article in Parade magazine about Arlington Heights in Chicago and Riverview Gardens here in St. Louis, and it was about how it was the first time kids had cars."
But there was a drawback to living in the area: Cement dust coated the community almost continuously. "The one thing I do remember is that white dust -- everyday," Duerbusch says.
The mayor, aldermen and residents repeatedly complained to St. Louis County government about the emissions from the factories on Maline Creek. In 1967, the county passed an air-pollution ordinance. According to an article published by the North County Journalin 1968, the county's air-pollution-control head told residents that the dust had been studied and that "there is no proven health hazard." The story reported that the county health department identified Missouri Portland Cement as the main generator of dust. CertainTeed's impact was not reported -- and the health department no longer has a copy of its study.
But back in 1968, the health department wouldn't have been testing for asbestos fibers, says Beaman, the county's current resident asbestos expert.
When CertainTeed and GAF decided to close their plants in 1979, they first had to figure out what to do with the open asbestos dump and decades' worth of waste. With state approval, the companies laid twelve inches of dirt on top of the open waste, along with some plant seeds and some riprap rock.
The EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources both inspected the closing of the dump. The federal agency had been monitoring asbestos pollution at the site since early 1979; DNR's air-pollution and hazardous-waste divisions, which by federal law are empowered to act on behalf of the EPA, had been involved.
When state and federal inspectors arrived on the site in late 1979, broken asbestos pipes and other waste were still scattered along Maline Creek. However, DNR's St. Louis-based regional administrator, Earl Holtgraewe, wrote in a memo dated January 21, 1980, to the director of the solid-waste-management program that "it would be just as well to leave it alone."
Neither agency required the companies to erect a fence to keep out children, who often played around the creek. After his inspection of the site, Holtgraewe wrote a letter to CertainTeed's vice president of manufacturing.
"It is our judgment," Holtgraewe wrote, "that the CertainTeed Corporation has taken the necessary actions to stabilize the asbestos waste pile and thereby restore the site to a condition in which it no longer poses a threat of contamination to the water or air resources of the state."
That was certainly the company's view. "There was nothing exposed," says Ambler, the retired division president. "Once it was covered over and approved by DNR and other applicable specifying agencies, the only exposure that happened was when that 100-year flood come through [in 1993]."
But records show that Ambler is mistaken.
For the next thirteen years, both DNR and the EPA tap-danced on the asbestos burial ground. In regular reports, the governments' inspectors described the waste site as a "low priority," even though they noted that soil was eroding from the asbestos waste and that the asbestos pier jutting into the stream was starting to crumble, releasing dangerous fibers into the air.
In December 1981, a state inspector noticed asbestos-cement pipe and other asbestos debris in the northwest corner of the site. The inspector also noted that the dump was within 350 feet of a nursing home and that the drinking-water supply was upstream. Two months later, the inspector wrote that there was now exposed asbestos slag, which, he said, "is now subject to sloughing off with the fluctuating stream flow and therefore poses some degree of concern."
In May 1982, the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, which owns a sliver of the land, decided to clean up the creek bank and put the asbestos waste in a sanitary landfill. But after hauling away several truckloads, it stopped, realizing that removing the waste cost more than the agency was willing to spend. Instead, documents at DNR state that MSD brought a wrecking ball to the site in order to "pound the materials into the bank."
"I consider that to be hearsay, because I've never talked to anybody who actually had seen it happen," says Timothy Chibnall, an environmental specialist with DNR's hazardous-waste program. "But that's also what I heard and what some of the documents alluded to in the file. If that happened, was it a bad idea? Absolutely."
Despite continuing erosion, state and federal environmental regulators during the 1980s continued to describe the site as posing no immediate danger. An EPA report in 1986 suggested the agency would, sometime in the near future, "discontinue all involvement in this site." In May and June of 1988, erosion was unearthing even more buried waste in the creek. When the EPA tested the exposed material, it found that it contained as much as 25 percent of the white asbestos and 15 percent of the blue.
But even though asbestos waste, including blue asbestos, was percolating up out of the soil, neither agency acted.
In August 1989, the county health department heard from a housing contractor who was digging a backyard trench to install a sewer line for a home in Riverview, a village next to Bellefontaine Neighbors. As he dug, he'd come across piles of asbestos. At the state's request, an EPA inspector went to the home, in the 9800 block of Lilac Drive. He asked where the waste might have come from, and the contractor identified it as the same material that was all over the banks of Maline Creek. The inspector drove to the creek and saw the same asbestos waste. He collected samples of the waste from the house on Lilac and the creek and discovered that both were composed of 5 to 53 percent white asbestos and 1 percent blue asbestos.
The inspector's notes don't outline any theories to explain how the waste ended up in the backyard of a house on Lilac Drive. But Beaman, the county's asbestos-compliance officer, says that most believe that it comes from the asbestos piles the neighbors used to raid. And it is buried in lots of backyards -- Beaman says the calls about asbestos' being uncovered in Bellefontaine Neighbors backyards average about one a month.
Despite regulators' assurances in the '80s, the asbestos problem hadn't been buried at all.
With the dump site still eroding, the EPA hired Kansas City-based Ecology and Environment Inc. to assess the site in 1992. The company's tests revealed that the asbestos material strewn about the creek bank and sitting on top of the waste piles contained as much as 85 percent white asbestos and up to 15 percent blue asbestos. The consultant also found that the asbestos-containing waste was "friable" -- easily crumbled -- by the natural force of the creek's waters. With the erosion, more and more asbestos fibers were being released.
In November of 1992, EPA environmental engineer Paul Beatty inspected the site. He examined the creek bank and reported a "two- to five-foot-thick layer of asbestos-pipe debris sandwiched between two layers of cementitious material, each one- to two-foot thick." The material, which could be "crushed and reduced to powder by finger pressure," was 15 to 20 percent white asbestos and 2 to 5 percent blue. The same cement material was found in the dirt between the creek bank and a paved trailer-storage area, as was pipe debris. The waste, he wrote, "appears to be deteriorating due to weathering and is presently friable or is becoming so."
Instead of addressing the problem, the EPA commissioned yet another study, this time by TapanAm Associates Inc. The company's extensive report, completed in 1993, chronicles how development along the urban creek increased the velocity of the water and scoured the creek bank, allowing large amounts of asbestos waste to slide into the creek. The report describes a four-foot-plus stratum of asbestos within the creek bank, starting at the northwest corner of the CertainTeed plant site, that "may extend 1,400 feet downstream." It says the bank's condition ranges from "reasonably stable to severely distressed," and the asbestos waste is described as showing "signs of advanced deterioration.
According to the report, the safety steps taken in 1979 had failed. The rock blanket that had been laid down had washed into the channel bed or had been carried downstream by floodwaters, and the vegetation growing on top of the twelve-inch blanket of soil couldn't keep the asbestos waste underground.
The chilling report warned of two hazards facing Bellefontaine Neighbors:
"The first scenario is that the fibers in the water will be deposited on a surface which when dries causes the fiber to become airborne. Due to the quantity of material in the creek and the continual change in water level in the creek, this situation becomes a viable concern."
The second danger, the report said, was "that the fibers make their way to the Mississippi River and then into the intake of public water systems."
Some health studies suggest a greater risk of gastrointestinal cancers in people who drink water containing high levels of asbestos; other studies haven't found a link. Because there's no conclusive evidence one way or the other at this time, the federal government limits the amount of asbestos that can be present in the water supply.
"The literature does show that ingesting asbestos is not a good thing," says Chibnall. "There is an EPA standard on how much asbestos can be in the drinking water, and that became a concern at this site because the site is, I believe, upstream from the drinking-water intakes for the city."
The report recommended cleaning up the creek bank and reburying the waste pile.
But the Great Flood intervened.
When the Mississippi and Missouri swelled in 1993, breaking levees and inundating communities along the great rivers, floodwaters rolled up small tributaries, swallowing property along the way. When Maline Creek overflowed, it overran the eroding asbestos dump, and asbestos debris was swept throughout the area.
"There was an outcropping of asbestos landfill that sits up between the two properties. It was like a finger of that landfill that was exposed in the bank," Chibnall says, "and that material was determined to be friable."
In February 1994, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry noted that a six- to eight-foot ledge in the creek bank had been created when water eroded the earth below it. Not only was the ledge a physical hazard because it could collapse, it was made up mostly of asbestos pipe, asbestos remnants and asbestos scrap. The agency concluded that the creek had cut into the landfill, exposing "considerable quantities" of asbestos material.
A month later, in March 1994, Roger Randolph, head of the DNR's Air Pollution Control Program, sent an e-mail to Cindy Kemper, the head of the state's Solid Waste Program, noting that the site had been eroding for years but had now reached the "critical" stage. He admitted that there was a long history of complaints about the site but that the EPA wasn't interested in designating it a Superfund site and that St. Louis County wasn't interested in taking the lead in cleaning up the mess.
"The asbestos contamination is extensive and severe, with much of it friable, some of it 'blue' [crocidolite], and much of it located where kids play and near residential neighborhoods. This is a significant health threat," Randolph advised.
"However, the cost to clean it up could be $10 million or more," he added.
Chibnall, who was eventually appointed to head up the remediation project, says the project bounced back and forth between the DNR and the EPA. At first, nobody could figure out who had the legal authority to clean it up.
"The universe in which it fell was the Superfund universe, but there was some question as to whether they had authority [under] the Clean Air Act and Superfund," Chibnall says. As a consequence, Ed Sadler, the head of the state's Hazardous Waste Program, took the lead in 1994. DNR brought the state health department to the site in 1994, and the agency concluded that the CertainTeed site posed "a significant public health risk to area residents [including] children and adults at Turner School located northeast of the site."
State and federal officials were also busy sampling the soil in the flood-buyout area for asbestos. Thirty-one samples from homes on Lebon and Marias drives were taken, and each sample was divided in half. The city of Bellefontaine Neighbors hired a consultant to test the samples using phased light microscopy. The state tested the samples using a more sensitive testing method, preferred by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, called transmission electron microscopy.
The weaker test concluded that only one of the twenty homes contained friable asbestos and that the source was floor tile installed in the home. However, the state test showed seven samples with a concentration of white asbestos at more than 1 percent, the legal limit for asbestos. Ten samples had trace amounts of white asbestos, and fourteen of the samples did not contain asbestos. In addition, soil samples taken from a ballfield near Maline Creek and from the soil outside some of the homes indicated that white asbestos was present in the soil.
On December 12, 1994, county, state and federal officials met to discuss the findings of the 31 soil samples and the question of whether ATSDR should be brought back in to determine whether there was an immediate health risk and "short-term protective action" was needed.
But the course chosen was more testing. And the group decided not to tell the residents about their concern that the site might pose an immediate health risk.
According to minutes of the meeting, the officials decided: "Since there is very little that could be told to the public, no availability session will be held at this time."
In early January 1995, Daryl Roberts, the state health department's chief of environmental epidemiology, concluded that the asbestos concentrations in the residential areas weren't a "health concern." Roberts noted that asbestos material had been, over the years, used by residents for "outdoor projects such as mailbox uprights, parking bumpers, lawn edging and children's play equipment." Roberts said he'd been told the material had been removed.
In 1995, after they were warned that Maline Creek could be designated a federal Superfund site, CertainTeed and GAF enrolled in the state's voluntary-cleanup program.
It was a shrewd move.
Under a voluntary cleanup, a company submits a plan to the state, hires contractors and oversees the site. Generally, at a Superfund site, the EPA devises the plan, hires the contractor and gives the companies the bill.
"We are more flexible," Chibnall says. "The participant in the voluntary-cleanup program maintains a lot more control; the Superfund will tell you exactly what to do, so you're looking at three times the cost."
But from the beginning, CertainTeed, GAF and their lawyers balked at many of DNR's requests. For example, Chibnall was concerned about a playground area near the site and wanted the companies to pay for additional soil testing. But CertainTeed's lawyer, Doug McLeod, balked at the request that his client pay the bill. In a letter to Chibnall in May 1996, McLeod wrote: "The area you describe lies outside of the site we have submitted to the Voluntary Cleanup Program.... Please do not interpret our comments as indicating that CertainTeed does not care about potential asbestos exposure to children."
Chibnall says he didn't press the issue, and instead the state paid for the testing, which he says didn't reveal asbestos exceeding the limit of 1 percent in soil.
And there were even more hotly contested issues.
"Some of the things they really kicked and screamed about," Chibnall says.
The biggest bone of contention was Roger Randolph's insistence that twenty feet of sand be poured behind a retaining wall. The companies wanted to use the dirt from the site as fill.
Randolph also wanted the excavated material disposed of in a sanitary landfill. The companies refused. The state then proposed that only material that was tested and found to contain asbestos material be sent to an asbestos landfill. The companies still refused. State regulators retreated further with a proposal that testing on the soil would be done if the naked eye could detect asbestos contamination. If no contamination was seen, the soil could be used as fill behind the retaining wall.
"Their attorneys didn't like, basically, what was going on; they thought we were being erroneous," Chibnall says. So the companies went straight to Steve Mahfood, head of the DNR, to complain about the requirements.
That brought an irate response from Randolph, the state official who'd been the most critical of the companies' efforts. In an internal memo dated May 20, 1998, to John A. Young, the DNR's director of environmental quality, Randolph wrote that what the companies proposed "does not meet sanitary landfill standards. That is, when we bury household waste it has to be buried better than this hazardous material."
Chibnall says that after the companies met with Mahfood, the negotiations were sent back down to the program directors to handle. But the sand filter that Randolph wanted was eventually killed.
Ultimately, soil excavated from the site and sand were used as fill between the wall and bank, so long as one couldn't see any asbestos material in it. The fill was ten feet thick.
The project, which is estimated to have cost the companies approximately $2.1 million, was finished in June 2001. Each company deposited $5,000 with the DNR to fund annual inspections of the site. The only thing left is for deed restrictions prohibiting residential development on the property to be recorded.
Chibnall declared the cleanup a success. But when asked whether an asbestos-waste site would be allowed on a similar site in the future, he is unequivocal.
"Oh God, no. No." he says.
"Quite frankly, no one would let them build such a landfill in the floodplain. There's just not enough control there. It is just a bad site."
Asbestos is virtually indestructible. The only way known to safely dispose of it is to bury it. But asbestos material, particularly crumbling asbestos waste, must stay buried, and that seems to be one of the many problems facing Bellefontaine Neighbors, not only on the banks of Maline Creek but in residents' backyards.
Reports of asbestos exposure roll into the county health department regularly. But nobody has conducted a survey to gauge the problem of buried asbestos waste in the community.
And there are still visible signs of old asbestos-cement pipe around the area today.
On St. Cyr Road, nestled between the old CertainTeed plant (now Branch Metals) and the GAF plant, are four small houses, with backyards abutting the plant property, that have asbestos-cement pipe lining the driveway. Some of the pipes are in better shape than others.
Sarah Denen, who lives in one of the houses, says that the homes were originally built for the plant foremen; her husband, who died of asbestosis several years ago, was one of them. He brought the pipe home and put it in as lawn decoration -- and there it is today.
There aren't any known health studies on cancer rates in the area -- only anecdotes and lawsuits. Mayor Rudloff says his mother died of lung cancer; both of John Duerbusch's parents died of lung cancer; Marian Dishon, whose home was in a federal buyout program after the flood, died of lung cancer. Many of those people also smoked.
Then there's Sandra Vierdag. In May 2002, the 42-year-old mother was found to have mesothelioma; by October, she was dead. Vierdag grew up a half-mile from the CertainTeed plant, left the area as an adult for nine months, then moved back into the neighborhood with her husband, this time about two miles from the plant.
In early December, the lawyers who represented Mary Samsel sued CertainTeed on behalf of Sandra's husband. But also named in the lawsuit are almost 100 other defendants, including Eastman Kodak, which, the lawsuit alleged, used asbestos-containing paper. Vierdag worked for Kodak.
Samsel's case was similar, initially filed against about 100 defendants. But many of the companies, including GAF, had bankruptcy protection. But CertainTeed is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Saint-Gobain, a Paris-based industrial conglomerate.
When asked whether the suit against CertainTeed was fashioned to plumb deep pockets, Lisa La Conte, one of the attorneys representing CertainTeed, says, "It is hard to say if it is a monetary decision. I personally don't know why they sue; I'm not privy to those reasons."
But CertainTeed and its lawyers are familiar with the Simmons Firm and Randy Bono. The Wood River, Illinois, firm has carved out a name for itself in the arena of asbestos litigation, frequently landing multimillion-dollar verdicts against companies. The week after Samsel's case went to trial, Bono received a $5.1 million jury verdict in St. Louis Circuit Court in an unrelated asbestos case.
Samsel's lawyers, Bono, Michael Angelides and Bill Kohlburn, agreed to be interviewed about Samsel's case and recounted her testimony. But through her attorneys, Samsel declined to be interviewed personally.
And at least one witness -- Samsel's father -- contradicted Samsel's testimony, according to CertainTeed's lawyers. They say Leo Mroczkowksi denied taking Mary to the plant when she was a little girl and denied using asbestos in the home on Kilgore. Mroczkowski -- who is now 72 -- did not return telephone messages.
But Michael Straughter, who bought the Mroczkowskis' home, says that after the house was inspected before trial, he had to have asbestos "encapsulated underneath the house and then on my steps."
And he's never received any sort of report about what was found that day.
"No one said anything," he says.