Poisoning people in Pennsylvania: Business as usual

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These nuclear corporations helped to destroy a town and its people. They left behind contaminated land and water and sick and dead residents … and now they are attacking the victims

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These nuclear corporations helped to destroy a town and its people. They left behind contaminated land and water and sick and dead residents … and now they are attacking the victims

Michael D. Yates is Associate Editor of Monthly Review magazine and Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press. His recent books include Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, and The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know

The articles below are republished, with permission, from his blog Cheap Hotels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue.


by Michael D. Yates
May 18, 2012

Apollo is a small town in western Pennsylvania, part of the old coal and steel belt that surrounds Pittsburgh. The shallow Kiskiminitas River, a tributary of the Allegheny, flows through the borough. Although it is close to my hometown, I never knew much about it, except that my artist uncle once made a glass carving for the town to commemorate the Apollo astronauts the community had embraced.

I remember passing through Apollo and noticing a large industrial complex at the edge of town. Years later, I learned that this plant was owned by the Babcock & Wilcox Corporation, and it produced uranium fuel. Babcock & Wilcox, a global conglomerate, has been involved in nuclear-related industrial production ever since the Manhattan Project, designing, fabricating, and supplying components for nuclear power plants, ships, submarines, and weapons.

The facility in Apollo and another one in nearby Parks Township, initially built by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) in 1957 and later bought by the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) and then by Babcock & Wilcox, closed in 1986. Left behind were contaminated land and water and sick and dead residents. Victims and their families sued the companies in the mid-1990s for damages suffered, and ARCO and Babcock & Wilcox were forced to pay $80 million to compensate victims for cancers and loss of property value. Sadly, by the time the lawsuits were settled, in 2008 and 2009, 40 percent of the claimants had died.

Meanwhile, Babcock & Wilcox declared bankruptcy in 2000 to avoid liability in thousands of lawsuits by employees subjected to asbestos, a substance that businesses have known since the 1930s causes cancer. As a condition of exiting bankruptcy, it set up a trust fund to pay asbestos claimants; the amount of money put aside was far less than the company would very likely have had to pay if it had faced those lawsuits.

Recently, nearly one hundred new lawsuits against ARCO and Babcock & Wilcox were filed by scores of people claiming that they got cancer as a result of exposure to radiation. A report to the federal court by an expert witness stated that the two companies “knew about worst-in-the-nation releases of radioactive materials that spanned decades, but opted not to do enough to protect neighbors from cancer-causing dust.”

NUMEC showed an almost wanton disregard for safety. “In the first few years, the company lost so much uranium—enough to build several nuclear bombs—that the FBI investigated whether someone was actually stealing the material and selling it to a foreign country!”

At the Parks Township facility, which produced plutonium and enriched uranium, NUMEC buried radioactive waste in an open unfenced field close to where children played. It is implausible that Babcock & Wilcox, with its many nuclear projects over a long period of time, did not know about the problems with the entities it was buying. Yet, it did nothing to protect its workers or the community.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,

A top official in 1974 viewed memos on the facility [which Babcock Wilcox bought in 1971] and wrote that if they were accurate, ‘we are guilty of gross irresponsibility in continuing to operate our uranium facilities.’ He threatened to shut them down, but the company didn’t stop making highly enriched uranium there until 1978, and it ended all production in 1984.

The actions of these corporations helped to destroy a town and its people, and it appears they knew what they were doing. They not only located a nuclear plant in a town, but then failed to shut it down when they knew that workers and residents were being poisoned.

“ ‘A lot of people have lost not only their entire savings but their homes,’ due to the health effects and loss of property value caused by the plants, said Patricia Ameno, of Leechburg, who sued the companies in a previous round of litigation . . . . ‘Their families have been torn apart by illnesses and deaths.’” Ms. Ameno, whose body has been wracked by cancer and brain tumors, added, “I saw the town I grew up in … disintegrating, just like the bricks on that plant.”

One of the persons who posted a comment on the Post-Gazette article noted that a 1999 piece in the same newspaper showed that one-sixth of Apollo’s population had some type of cancer!

I posted the Post-Gazette story on a facebook page dedicated to men and women who grew up in my hometown in the 1950s and 1960s. Most know about the Apollo plant. And they all lived in a town dominated by the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, which poisoned its own employees with asbestos and silica dust and whose now abandoned property is so full of harmful chemicals that it cannot even donate it to the town. Outside town, near the company-owned fields on which I used to play baseball, “waste lagoons” built by the company and fed by pipes that went under the river have been leaking “arsenic, chromium, lead, manganese, copper, zinc, mercury and other toxic compounds into the river.”

Despite this, only two persons commented on what I posted. If a post concerns some ancient bit of trivia or the local hoagie shop, members of the group fall all over themselves to make some meaningless remark. But something so important is met with silence.

Sadly, a family member is a manager at Babcock & Wilcox. I have always wondered how he could do this. The division of the company in which he works is knee-deep in the bowels of the military-industrial system. It “manages complex, high-consequence nuclear and national security operations, including nuclear production facilities and the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve.” In others words, it is part of the U.S. war machine, making money by helping the government kill people, just like it killed people more directly in Apollo.

Thousands of people grew up in and near Apollo. They have learned what harm the corporations who employed them and their relatives and friends have done and continue to do. Men, women, and children were poisoned by that uranium fuel plant and that glass plant.

Yet, for the most part, they ignore this, content to contemplate instead their “warm and fuzzy” memories, as one person put it on my hometown facebook page. And many hundreds of thousands of men and women work as managers for horrendous corporate criminals like Babcock Wilcox without ever questioning their actions.

Perhaps this tells us something about what those who raise their voices in protest are up against. Including the plaintiffs challenging Babcock & Wilcox. I wish them success.



by Michael D. Yates
October 20, 2012

Last May I reported on the plight of people in the western Pennsylvania town of Apollo. As a result of gross corporate negligence, many residents have suffered serious illnesses from the uranium fuel plants located in and close to the village. The last owner of the facilities was the global conglomerate, Babcock & Wilcox. Left behind when the plants closed in 1986 “were contaminated land and water and sick and dead residents.”

As a result of lawsuits filed in the 1990s, Babcock & Wilcox and ARCO (the previous owner) were forced to pay $80 million to compensate victims for cancers and loss of property value. Now scores of new lawsuits have been filed against the two corporations, which must contend with a damning report by an expert witness to the federal court hearing the cases that states that the companies knew about “worst-in-the-nation releases of radioactive materials that spanned decades” but didn’t do much to protect the health of the residents.

Corporations never take such lawsuits lying down. They fight back, and they have ample resources and hired guns to do their dirty work. A classic ploy is to smear those who accuse them, much like a defense attorney will suggest that a woman who is raped was asking for it.

Patricia Ameno, who grew up in Apollo and who has suffered cancer and brain tumors, has been an activist for twenty-five years in the battle to secure justice for those done grievous harm by the two companies. She has become a leading protagonist in the current lawsuits, a public face for those who have suffered. A David, if you will, battling against Goliath.

This must be a frightening position to be in, and the companies know this. So they use their power, their image of invincibility, to put such a person in her place and show the litigants that they might face the same.

Babcock & Wilcox has gone after Patricia Ameno with full force, attacking her credibility and accusing her of dishonesty. It has filed a discovery motion in federal court to force Ms. Ameno to provide it with information. The company claims that she “destroyed evidence, made false allegations about nuclear contamination at its sites and recently invoked the Fifth Amendment twice in a deposition for a lawsuit.”

It says that she was paid $70 for each litigant, that she destroyed the invoices showing that she received the money, that at public meetings she disingenuously recruited people with cancer to file lawsuits, convincing these hapless souls that their cancers were due to actions by Babcock &Wilcox when there was no evidence that this was so.

Ms. Ameno’s lawyer and the firm prosecuting the case for the plaintiffs deny the corporation’s claims, and Ms. Ameno says that she is being harassed. Veteran environmental lawyer and Duquesne University law professor, Steven Baicker-McKee, was taken aback by the attacks, stating that “This is certainly evidence of very adversarial and hostile relations between the defendants and Ms. Ameno.” Some excerpts from the federal court motion certainly sound hostile:

“Defendants have sought to learn what Patricia Ameno told plaintiffs to convince them that their cancers were caused by defendants and to commit themselves to time-consuming lawsuits that undoubtedly have disrupted their personal lives.”

“In order to drum up claims against defendants, Ms. Ameno held a series of public meetings in which she apparently told prospective Plaintiffs that Defendants caused their cancers, even though no epidemiological evidence supports this claim. Ms. Ameno enlisted dozens of Plaintiffs, even though they had no scientific or medical basis for suing defendants.”

“According to a Jan. 4, 2010 letter from Motley Rice [the firm representing plaintiffs] to Ameno, she was hired by the firm as an independent contractor to ‘aid in the investigation and prosecution of lawsuits’ related to the Armstrong County former nuclear fuels plants.”

Attack, attack; deny, deny; delay, delay. This is what corporations do when their perfidy is made public. It’s often a winning strategy. And even when it is not, the worst that happens to them is that they lose some money. Their victims, on the other hand, stay maimed, sick, and dead.

The attacks on Patricia Ameno are just the opening salvo of what will be a long, drawn-out affair. The last set of lawsuits dragged on for fourteen years before Babcock & Wilcox settled. It never admitted guilt. And just as with the last suits, more plaintiffs will die before the dust settles.