Thirty miles east of Cleveland, past crumbling warehouses and rotting industrial shells, lies a thousand-acre plot of raised dirt overlooking Lake Erie.
Below the man-made bluffs, white-capped waves splash gently against rock jetties, whose edges protrude like the chins of stubborn men. The water here is a brilliant, hypnotizing blue. Sitting on the shore, you find it hard to tell exactly where the lake ends and the sky begins.
"My thought when I walk around is, 'I could be in Colorado or on the coast,'" says Terri Bell, special projects consultant for IMG, the internationally known Cleveland talent agency.
For most of the 20th century, this Painesville Township site played host to Diamond Alkali, a thriving chemical plant. But in the '70s, the owners sensed better opportunities elsewhere and packed up for Texas. Thousands were left without jobs. The plant became a rusting memorial to more pleasant times. For 30 years, it sat mostly empty.
"I've lived in Lake County all my life," says commissioner Ray Sines. "I've seen the place go from a thriving industrial area to a blighted eyesore. There was always a question of what would become of the place."
But in 2005, IMG decided to open a luxury sports training resort here. Beneath the industrial carcass lay acres and acres of lakefront real estate -- the sort of land no longer available in Florida or even Chicago. It was exactly what the company, best known for representing clients like Tiger Woods, was looking for.
For three decades, IMG has operated a professional training facility in Bradenton, Florida, where tennis pros like Monica Seles lived and trained during their high-school years. The agency wanted a site where recreational athletes could get the same training in a sprawling resort with world-class tennis courts and professionally designed golf courses.
Todd Davis, a Beachwood developer, came calling with just such a plan. IMG fell in love. "We thought the concept was just phenomenal," says Bell.
Suddenly, hands were shaking, deals were solidified, buildings were razed, and long-suffering Lake County commissioners were drinking champagne.
Beginning in summer 2009, Lakeview Bluffs will play host to tanned executives from Fort Lauderdale to Fort Wayne. They'll spend their time sailing, swimming, golfing, and receiving personal training from experts with names like Sven and Katerina. At night, they'll be able to see Broadway-caliber actresses perform stage classics, or enjoy a Swedish massage. In the morning, they can order feta and spinach omelets and French-press coffee from the Boutique Resort Hotel's room-service menu. And those who want to retire in style -- but don't like the swampy heat or gossip of Boca -- will find a gated community of luxury condos and town houses.
For a former chemical community that's lost its sense of pride and its main industry, Lakeview Bluffs is just the economic and mental boost it needs. "It's going to bring revitalization to the whole area," Sines predicts.
There's just one problem, best expressed by a former EPA toxicologist: "No one in their right mind should be able to build there."
For decades, commissioners viewed the land in this northern part of Lake County as more industrial park than amusement park. Chemical plants took up much of the space. Diamond Alkali was the largest by far, churning out tons of soda ash (a material used in glass production), as well as cement, chlorine, alkali, and chromium compounds used in paints and dyes.
About 500 acres of this 1,100-acre plot fell in a small, flannel-and-jeans village near Painesville called Fairport Harbor. From the beginning, the village was a company town. The name "Diamond Alkali" was spoken with the same respect afforded bishops. It was the headwaters from which jobs, mortgages, and all else flowed.
And the company was good to its people. It built a recreation center and threw annual Christmas parties, giving away lavish presents to the kids. When someone was injured on the job, it was company policy to provide the family with a ranch home near the plant and a guaranteed lifetime salary.
Fairport Harbor offered an idyllic life of sorts. There were creeks to swim in, ponds to skate on, massive fields to roam. On the weekends, fathers and sons dipped fishing lines in the lake, catching perch for Sunday dinner. "It was just a wonderful place to grow up," says John Ameen of his '50s childhood.
But paradise often comes with a price. In exchange for bucolic settings, residents had to deal with a degree of unpleasantness -- the vinegary stink of sulfuric acid, for instance. "The odor was so bad, you had to hold your breath," remembers Jim Prezioso. "But you could only hold it for so long." And when you were forced to finally breathe, your nose and mouth filled with a heavy, nausea-inducing stench. On particularly bad days, parents barricaded their children indoors, spraying deodorant about living rooms.
The sulfuric acid also had physical effects, eating away at workers' shoes, the siding of homes, and paint on cars. Workers who refused to wear masks belatedly found their nose cartilage melting away. They "demonstrated how they could push the edge of their handkerchiefs up one nostril and out the other," remembers one former resident with a shudder.
The large smokestacks emitted long black clouds of soot, which was impossible to wash off houses or cars and caused the sky to darken early. "My sister thought that it would get dark at night because of the smokestack," says former resident Paula Square.
Then there were the settling ponds -- the milky, pea-green pools where Diamond Alkali dumped its waste. Parents warned their kids not to go near them. Birds that dove in never re-emerged. Plant life was obliterated.
Executives assured residents that toxins weren't being dumped. And if workers followed protocol, that might have been true.
But they didn't.
When engineers mixed a bad batch of chemicals, they were required to burn the liquids in an outdoor kiln, thus negating the toxic properties. But according to at least one plant worker, this rarely happened.
"The workers didn't care," recalls Lou Denes, a lab tech in the company water department in the '50s and '60s. "They'd throw the samples straight down the drain or into the disposal outfall," which ran into the ponds. "They'd say, 'This won't hurt; a little bit won't hurt.'"
Unfortunately, little bits of toxins, dumped over decades, have a way of creating a volatile whole.
Around the same time, scientists had grown interested in the relationship between chromate and cancer. A study was conducted on 332 employees who worked in the company's chrome plant from 1931 through 1951. The workers were followed until 1974, and the study was updated in 1997. The results were troublesome. Out of 283 deaths, 66 were from lung cancer. During autopsies, doctors found large deposits of toxic chromium built up in their lungs.
In the late 1890s, Giuseppe Scacciavillani, newly Americanized as Joseph Square, immigrated to Fairport Harbor from Italy. He was the first of six children to make the trek, settling on a small farm on Fairport Nursery Road, across the street from the land where Diamond Alkali would rise. He and his brothers started a tree farm, raising evergreens, rose bushes, and barberries.
Joseph eventually married Anna Cardina. The couple would produce 10 children -- six seemingly healthy, squirmy girls, and four red-faced, screaming boys. They too would marry and settle in houses up and down Fairport Nursery Road.
Diamond Alkali would expand at the same rate as the Square family. Throughout the early 1900s, the plant grew, adding more subdivisions. But by the 1950s, Grandma and Grandpa Square saw firsthand how well the company's chemicals worked. One morning, Joseph woke up to find his 10-acre farm defoliated. Not a leaf was left on the trees and shrubs, grandchildren remember. Diamond Alkali reimbursed the Squares, but the family began to wonder what was brewing in the massive plant across the road.
Joseph and Anna's children were as fertile as their parents, producing scores of grandchildren. But the proud new parents wouldn't see their kids grow up. Eight of the original Square children contracted malicious strains of cancer, dying at young ages. Sisters Carmella, Kathryn, and Dorothy all succumbed to breast cancer before their 36th birthdays. Fannie died of the same disease in her 40s. Mary and Jenny developed tumors on their uteruses and were dead by their 60s. Son Bobby developed a brain tumor. He died at age 50.
"We began to get this reputation as the cancer family," says Paula Square, Joseph's granddaughter. "It had nothing to do with the family and everything to do with the environment."
Paula, the daughter of one of the few Square children who didn't contract cancer, grew up attending funerals. As a young girl, she thought little about her own mortality -- until her cousin Richard was diagnosed with spinal tumors at age 12. The formerly active swimmer Paula knew was replaced by a miniature, pain-ridden hunchback who was dead at 14. Richard's brother Joseph would die the same way.
When Paula was old enough to escape Fairport Harbor, she ran as fast as she could, earning a PhD in speech-language pathology at Kent State, then accepting a fellowship at the Mayo Clinic. But she couldn't escape the Square fate. When she was in her early 20s, she felt stabbing pain in her pelvis, as if a constricting belt of nails was pushing into her flesh. She ignored it. "You always hope you're going to be the one to escape," she says.
At age 28, the pain was so severe she scheduled an ultrasound. Doctors discovered five tumors the size of goose eggs in her uterus. The tumors were benign, but it was just the beginning of her health traumas.
Throughout her 30s and 40s, she struggled with fertility problems. Then, in 2001, she felt a burning sensation in her pelvic region. When a urinary tract infection started to bleed, Paula reluctantly made her way to the emergency room. Doctors informed her she had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Now, at 58, her face is so devoid of fat you can see her jaw muscles working to smile. Formerly tight-fitting rings slip off her fingers. Her bones look as if they might snap. She's lost so many white blood cells that she has to be quarantined in the hospital. A mere cold could kill her.
The cancer pattern would repeat itself in the next two generations of Square grandchildren. But this wasn't a horrible fate befalling a single family. "Every family on Fairport Nursery Road, someone in their family -- mother, father, sister, brother -- died of a cancer," says Joan Prezioso, a breast-cancer survivor who grew up there.
Residents keep mental ledgers of the sick. Patty Nurmi died of brain cancer in her 30s. Marilyn Merrill Nixon's father died of lung cancer. Yolanda Square also died of brain cancer. Mike Nelson's mother succumbed to breast cancer.
Doctor Frank Sailors has treated many of these people. When the studious physician first opened his practice in 1979, his first two patients were from Fairport Nursery Road. Both complained of ordinary ailments, leg pain, and unrelenting coughs. Both had advanced stages of cancer. One had contracted myelogenous lymphoma, the other lung cancer. She had never smoked.
He's been treating the residents of Fairport Nursery Road ever since. Something, he believes, is causing these cancers -- something environmental. "This just isn't normal," he says. "It's not coincidental."
The cancer is now attacking a fourth generation. Joan Michelbrink's mother and aunt both died of breast cancer. When Joan was 22, she too found a golfball-size lump in her breast. The first lump was benign, but the next one wasn't. She had both breasts removed.
Terrified, Michelbrink fled to Arizona, hoping her children would be saved. They weren't. Son Tim was a teenager when he had the first acorn-size lump removed in his leg. Over the next 20 years, he'd have 8 more removed.
Daughter Jackie was in her early 20s when she had two tumors removed from her breasts. Doctors found 26 cysts in daughter Rebecca's thyroid. "Don't you dare tell me that this has nothing to do with chemicals," Michelbrink says, a few months after returning from the funeral of another Fairport Nursery relative, who died of brain cancer.
Chemical companies are quick to argue that with so much cancer in one family, the problem must be genetic. But medical experts counter that there must be an environmental problem to spark such genetic abnormalities. When Bruce Molholt, a retired U.S. EPA toxicologist, heard of the cancer rates on Fairport Nursery Road, he shook his head.
"Jesus, I've never heard such stats," he says. "The fact that you have all these people dying before the age of 35 indicates to me that there was some type of chemical exposure going on . . . probably a lot."
Diamond Alkali's collapse occurred quickly -- like someone who'd held his breath for 60 years, then found he could hold it not a second longer. In the 1960s, the company was surpassed by superior rivals like Dow and Monsanto. As a last attempt at survival, it merged with Shamrock Oil of Texas. In 1977, the company closed its Ohio operation and moved to Dallas.
Its departure devastated Fairport Harbor. Diamond Shamrock, later bought out by Maxus Energy, sold off pieces of its land to other chemical companies.
By the '80s, workers were more worried about vacated jobs and absent health care than the noxious fumes and chemical ponds the company left behind. In 1981, officials found cancer-causing chemicals like mercury, cyanide, and hexavalent chromium in the same water that Fairport Harbor residents used for play. Hexavalent chromium is the substance Erin Brockovich famously found polluting the water in Hinkley, California.
But aside from fencing off the area, the EPA did nothing with these findings until 12 years later, when it finally realized that having cancer agents in the water is probably not a good thing. In 1993, the EPA lobbied to have the area placed on the federal Superfund list.
Residents weren't happy about the designation. "There's a certain stigma that goes with that label," says Teri Heer of the Ohio EPA. Besides, the designation would be of little help. In the 13 years prior to 1993, only 160 of the 1,202 Superfund sites were actually cleaned.
But there was a way to release the site from the list. Successor companies to Diamond Alkali -- like Maxus Energy and Tierra Solutions -- could finance their own study for cleanup. Since the companies had inherited responsibility, it seemed only right that they pick up the tab.
Yet there was a glaring downside to the deal. The cost of cleanup would be massive, so they had a huge incentive to downplay whatever they found -- or avoid finding it at all.
The Ohio EPA maintains it still had final say, but scientists weren't happy. "The testing was being largely controlled by the company that would have liability if large amounts of carcinogens were found," says Russell Bimber, a former research analyst for Diamond Shamrock.
But even with an incentive, it was hard to cover up the nightmare on Fairport Nursery Road. A 1993 study showed there were still "elevated levels of hexavalent chromium" migrating toward the Grand River. It also found "elevated levels" of arsenic, benzene, and thallium in the water. If you were looking to poison someone, this land offered one-stop shopping.
The most hazardous finding was from a one-acre landfill, hidden about 150 feet from the Erie shoreline, where Diamond Alkali officials stored 150,000 gallons of waste. In these steel barrels sat large quantities of hexachlorobenzene -- known to cause liver, kidney, and thyroid cancers, and banned in the U.S. since 1966 -- and hexachlorobutadiene, which is linked to brain, kidney, and liver diseases. To barricade the toxins, the landfill was covered with a 36-inch clay ceiling and a layer of topsoil.
By the end of the '90s, the study was complete, but most of the multimillion dollar cleanup hadn't started. Maxus and Tierra wouldn't pick up the full check, since other companies had operated on the site at various times. So the state filed suit against every company with potential liability for failing to launch a cleanup. Nothing was getting done.
But in 2001, Todd Davis waltzed into the picture. The head of Hemisphere Developers in Beachwood, Davis is known for redeveloping brownfields. In the '90s, he refurbished Toledo land surrounding a Chrysler facility and converted a contaminated rail-maintenance yard in Collinwood into a Jergens plant.
"He's got a knack in the brownfield industry," says Kara Allison of Hull and Associates, an environmental consulting firm in Dublin, Ohio. "He's kind of one of the founding fathers of the industries."
But Davis has another reputation in Cleveland. In 1999, the lawyer-turned-developer bought 25 acres on 80th and Kinsman, with plans to turn the blighted area into an industrial park. He promised scores of new jobs, so the city spent $4.7 million to help with the cleanup.
Once it was completed, Davis belatedly realized what most had known from the start: Businesses weren't rushing to relocate to the ghetto. So Davis enacted the kind of deal Sam Miller made famous. He sold the land to the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority for more than $4 million -- three times its value, according to one audit.
Though such deals are routine in Cleveland, Miller and other city fathers are protected by status and beneficent political contributions. Davis was a nobody here. He was crucified in The Plain Dealer. U.S. Senator George Voinovich, conspicuously silent on Miller's many deals, demanded a federal investigation.
Davis insists there was nothing nefarious about his sale. It was a "completely and unbelievably inaccurate portrayal by The Plain Dealer," he says. He'd started communicating with city officials about relocating CMHA headquarters back in 2000, he claims. "From a business perspective, the [relocation] made perfect sense." He also claims that two other appraisers valued the land much higher.
But around Cleveland, his name is still cursed. The same cannot be said in Lake County, where officials revere the man who brought IMG and has also assumed the majority of the cleanup costs -- and potential profits -- of the planned resort. The state has already kicked in over $3 million in grants to purge the land of chemicals.
Today, about one-sixth of the cleanup is complete. Workers have carted off thousands of yards of contaminated dirt to a landfill in New York and have imported over a half-million yards of clay to cap the worst spots. They've also drawn up strict housing codes, ensuring that hotels and housing units will be built on stilts, so that chemicals can't seep in through basement floors. Guests won't be allowed to use groundwater. And to make sure the dirt surrounding the landfill doesn't spill into the lake, they've erected erosion barriers to stop it.
"We have all the faith and confidence in the world in Todd Davis," says IMG's Bell.
But to some residents in Fairport Harbor, the project still smells as rotten as the lake. They would like nothing more than to believe the land can be rehabilitated, but they have their doubts. They've heard their fathers talk of dumping chemicals in the ponds. They've seen the rain fall on piles of bright yellow chromium-and-soda ash residue, pushing it toward the lake. Many would never set foot on the property, much less buy a house there. "I know too much," says one former Diamond research chemist, who doesn't want to be named for fear of being ostracized.
Not everyone is afraid to put a name on paper. At 78, Russell Bimber isn't the spry, agile man he once was. In July, he underwent hip surgery, insisting that the operation "wasn't a big deal really." But he still possesses the same inquisitive, analytical mind that made him a success during his 40 years as a Diamond Alkali chemist.
Bimber is intimately familiar with the chemicals the company traded. He and other workers donned face shields and gloves, afraid of what the materials might do by mere contact with skin. Bimber was outraged to learn of Davis' plan for a resort.
"There's still hexavalent chromium buried deep underground there," he says. The mere words conjure a nightmare for the scientist.
When Bimber was a young man working at Merck in the 1950s, a lab worker took home some chromium acid to clean scum from the bottom of a glass. Then he cleaned the glass with detergent and left it out to dry. But he apparently didn't scrub hard enough. His two-year-old daughter took a sip of water from the same glass. She was dead within minutes. Bimber still shudders while recalling the story.
The scientist doesn't trust that two or even four feet of topsoil are enough to stanch such toxicity. Soil wears away with the rain, and water can cause chemicals to float closer to the surface. "I think of young children playing with their toy shovels right near the lake," he says, his voice trailing off. "It doesn't take a lot of hexavalent to be toxic."
Bimber also distrusts the EPA's assertions that there aren't enough toxins in the ground to be dangerous. "They've done a lot of testing of groundwater from the site, it's true," he says. But in his mind, the testing was purposely done "in places where the worst toxins are unlikely to be found."
Some of the worst runoff would occur directly to the west and north of the landfill, following the flow of groundwater in the area. Yet developers set up procedures to test water only to the east and south of the site. And the EPA isn't conducting the tests; contractors hired by the developers are.
To Molholt, the former EPA toxicologist, the testing is reminiscent of the old joke where a man looks furiously for a set of lost keys near a streetlight in the park. The keys were lost nowhere near the light, but the man insists on looking there because the light is better.
"It sounds like they're searching in places they're not likely to find something," Molholt says.
More worrisome are the barricades guarding the landfill. The hazardous waste is contained in steel barrels, which could rust, allowing toxins to escape. If that happens, the lake is protected by 36 inches of clay. Bimber doesn't believe it's enough to stop 150,000 gallons of the most toxic sludge known to mankind.
"Such large quantities of liquid could easily find their way into Lake Erie catastrophically fast," he says. "It could also cause health problems to people drinking the water."
Lake County Commissioner Robert Aufuldish, also a retired chemist, acknowledged that Bimber's thesis isn't science fiction. "If the wastes went into the lake, it would be horrendous," he's said in the past.
The threat could be eliminated, Bimber contends, if developers pumped the remaining toxins from the barrels. But they insist their plan is already safe, and the EPA agrees. "I have complete faith," says the EPA's Heer.
Of course, history suggests it's hard to have that same faith in the Ohio EPA. It has the reputation of being a surrogate for industry, rarely finding problems anywhere. It's the same agency that allowed City View shopping center to be built on a toxic waste dump in Garfield Heights ["Tomb with a View," January 10]. And it was the EPA that discovered cancer-causing agents on factory land near Middlefield in 1994. Rather than launch a cleanup, it merely put up a fence, while nearby residents suffered from outbreaks of cancers and neurological diseases ["While the EPA Slept," November 15, 2001].
Nonetheless, county officials extend their faith. When Commissioner Sines was asked whether he was worried about health hazards at the site, he paused, then said, "Well, you have to rely on the experts -- that's the EPA in this instance."
He also believes developers wouldn't risk the blowback of future problems. "They don't want to have liability down the line, so you expect them to be more diligent than anyone else."
In two years, the first part of the development -- a golf course, sculptured grounds, and a clubhouse -- will be complete. When that happens, there will no doubt be a ribbon-cutting and more champagne.
But whether visitors will ever know of the horrors beneath them is doubtful. Brochures for Lakeview Bluffs show happy, athletic people, working out and relaxing. There are no accompanying photos of breast tumors or the dead piling up on Fairport Nursery Road.
On top of the landfill, developers have planted imported grass from Texas, which Davis calls "beautiful." But in this case, beauty is a cover-up -- in the most literal sense.