Linda Milford's Barberton house is as much a memorial to the dead as it is a home to the living.
The family room's paneled walls are covered with poems about ascending to heaven, accompanied by photos of Linda's late husband, Fred. The pictures show him flashing playful smiles, his jaw lined with an Amish-style beard.
Depending upon the holiday, the 57-year-old widow decorates her TV hutch and end tables with cards Fred gave her throughout their 19-year marriage. Mother's Day cards are currently on display. "He was my special man," Milford says. "And he was taken from me too soon."
The tale of how she lost her husband begins on a warm September day in 1998. Linda was going about her daily chores. Fred was working at Summit County's wastewater treatment Plant 36, where he'd worked since the early '80s.
As the plant supervisor, Fred often caught flak from county higher-ups who thought him too friendly with the rank and file. He never asked his men to do something he wouldn't, says Linda. "They were our family. I'd always cook big meals and take them down to the plant for all the boys, or we'd set up big tables at home and they'd all come over on their lunch breaks. They were like his sons."
But on this day, Linda wasn't expecting them for lunch. So she was surprised to see Fred's truck pull into the driveway. She watched as Jimmy Graham, a plant worker, jumped out of the driver's seat and walked around to help Fred out of his truck. Linda knew something wasn't right.
She ran outside to help Graham carry Fred into the house. He shook violently, and his skin was clammy. "I'm so cold, and I've got a headache," he told her.
This was odd. Fred never got sick. "He was very healthy, always exercising and taking his vitamins," Linda says. "He hadn't been in the hospital, except to have his tonsils taken out as a kid."
Linda put him to bed, tucking him beneath layers of heated blankets. When he didn't stop trembling, she took him to the hospital.
The doctor diagnosed him with E. coli, most likely contracted from working with the sewage at Plant 36. He spent over a week in the hospital and another month on antibiotics.
In October, just when they started to think he was getting better, Fred woke Linda in the middle of the night. "I'm scared," he whispered to her. "I think it's coming back."
He was rushed to Akron General Hospital, his lungs full of fluid. A few weeks later, doctors discovered that the 60-year-old was suffering from more than E. coli.
A big knot in his groin revealed that he'd had cancer for years. It had spread throughout his body, working its way to his brain.
For the next five years, Fred endured operations, chemotherapy, and radiation. He continued to work until 2002, when he finally retired.
Over the next two years, Fred lost more than 70 pounds. Linda spent her days running him to doctors' appointments and cancer treatment. She nursed him as he recovered from two brain surgeries in 2003. But by the following year, their fight was over.
On April 15, 2004, Linda checked Fred out of the hospital so that he could die at home. She sat by his side, writing his obituary. He passed away 17 hours later.
Plant employees called Linda and offered to be his pallbearers. "They were so supportive," she says. "It just tore them up to watch Fred go the way he did. And then, when they all started getting sick -- something is just not right, I tell you. Something's wrong."
Indeed, not long after Fred got sick, most of his employees began to tumble into illness as well. Today, at least 10 of Fred's 15 workers have been diagnosed with cancer or other life-threatening diseases. One was only 34 years old. And none of it is a coincidence, they will tell you.
Welcome to Plant 36. Or, as employees sardonically call it, "Plant 666."
You'd never know just by looking at it that Plant 36 was toxic.
It's tucked away in a quiet east Akron neighborhood, where dense woods surround neatly landscaped lawns, well-maintained homes, and a few charmingly weathered farmhouses.
Plant 36, also known as the Upper Tuscarawas Plant, does its best to blend in with its surroundings. The long, winding entrance ensures that it is well hidden. A glistening pond deflects attention from the sterile brick buildings and maze of white fencing. Even on a hot, muggy day, it doesn't have the heavy stench of most treatment plants.
Until July 1991, employees considered Plant 36 as harmless as it appeared.
They had recently begun using ferric chloride to treat the wastewater. But the tanks used to hold the metal-eating chemical hadn't been updated to accommodate it. The ferric chloride eventually ate through, spilling about 20,000 gallons of toxins into the ground.
"Mike," a 30-year-old maintenance worker, was asked to help contain the spill that day.
"We weren't given any respiratory equipment or nothing," says Mike, who spoke to Scene on the condition that his real name not be printed. "The fumes were horrible, but the bosses kept telling us that it was no different from breathing in salt."
Another picture emerged when workers from the Ohio EPA showed up the next day with breathing devices and biohazard suits. Ferric chloride, it turns out, can eat through flesh, and inhaling it is extremely harmful to the upper respiratory tract.
Concerned that the chemical had seeped into the groundwater, the EPA began monitoring the plant's main water well. What it discovered was far more disturbing.
The EPA found the presence of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical that had infiltrated the water at more than 20 times the federally accepted amount. The agency also found other dangerous chemicals, such as vinyl chloride and lead.
Employees were outraged. Most had worked at Plant 36 since it opened in 1981. For the past decade, they'd been drinking, showering, making coffee, and brushing their teeth with that water.
They started conducting their own research -- and found a long history of buried horrors.
Mike sits at his dining-room table, surrounded by piles of graphs, maps, and reports. He doesn't need to refer to them as he speaks. He has them memorized.
From 1943 to 1966, the site for Plant 36 was occupied by Rubber City Sand and Gravel, a dump used by Goodyear.
The Akron corporation disposed of everything from heavy metals to cyanides at the site, burying the toxic chemicals in trenches.
By 1966, nearby residents began to complain about noxious fumes. The Akron-Barberton Air Pollution Control Agency eventually told Goodyear to cease its dumping.
A series of 1969 letters from the Ohio Department of Health indicate that there were already concerns about groundwater contamination. "Expensive measures would have to be taken to satisfactorily seal this site in order to insure that a landfill operation would not pollute the ground water," says one letter.
Part of the land was eventually turned into a wildlife refuge for swimming and fishing.
In 1978, Goodyear sold most of the dump site to Summit County for $1. Two years later, the county decided to build a water-treatment plant on the seven-acre spread. Since the feds were funding the project, the EPA had to be notified of the site's history. After a preliminary review, the agency's orders were simple: Add three extra feet of fresh soil to seal off the old landfill.
Throughout the 1980s, the EPA continued to conduct groundwater and soil tests. Its reports noted a potential hazard, but did little more than place the site on its "medium priority" list.
Meanwhile, Mike and his fellow workers had no idea what they were ingesting. County officials who knew of the site's history never felt it necessary to tell them. "The well water had been tested over the years, and the levels were fine," says Bob Hollis, a former manager.
It wasn't until the ferric chloride spill in 1991 that the employees of Plant 36 learned the truth about their workplace. "I felt totally violated," Mike says. "I couldn't believe that people would let that happen -- that we'd be exposed like that and they wouldn't tell us until they had their backs against the wall."
Workers approached the county. The county brought in eight experts to quiet their concerns. Environmental experts showed them graphs that said the contamination was too far below ground level to harm them. A doctor then checked out each worker for tumors and cancerous moles. Everyone was fine. The county also started trucking in fresh water for employee use.
By 1993, most of the workers had pushed the subject out of their minds. Many of them found work at other plants and forgot all about the long lists of alien-sounding chemicals.
Then, in 1995, Mike got sick. The 33-year-old father of three started coughing up blood and having asthma attacks. A doctor diagnosed him with heart and lung disease, as well as nerve damage in both of his legs. He was given 10 years to live.
No one could believe it. "He was like a Greek god, that kid was so healthy," says fellow employee Windy Albert.
"If that kid got sick, you know that plant had something to do with it," says Jim Smith, another co-worker.
But Mike needed to support his family, so he continued to work for the county until he went on disability in 2003. He now spends his time obsessing over the EPA reports that, he believes, prove that his list of illnesses is related to Plant 36.
"He's messed up; he's seriously messed up," says his lawyer, Gerald Walton. "Even his doctors have expressed that these medical conditions are environmentally related. The person responsible for so indiscriminately dumping these toxins and carcinogens should also be responsible to the people they've hurt."
Jim Smith would like to take legal action, but fighting cancer has kept him busy enough.
Smitty spent 22 years working for the county, doing maintenance at Plant 36 and serving as president of AFSCME Local 1229.
In those days, he was a hulking 347 pounds. His personality was even larger. According to legend, no one could outtalk or outdrink him.
When the guys at Plant 36 first got wind of the toxic water and the dump site story, Smitty was on the case. He retrieved all the EPA records he could find and sent them off to AFSCME's international branch, asking for legal assistance. No one came to his aid.
"They all looked at me like 'Yeah, you're the union guy who wants to start shit over something that's nothing,'" Smitty says.
Like practically everyone else at the plant, Smitty put the incident behind him. He avoided Plant 36, working maintenance at other treatment plants until he retired in 2001.
Then, on New Year's Eve of 2003, Smitty was partying at a neighbor's house when he got a horrible case of heartburn. He thought it was the whiskey, but it got so bad that his wife Cheryl drove him to the hospital. Doctors found a tumor four and a half inches long in his esophagus. They found another in his kidney. Smitty had cancer.
After 30 days of radiation and more than a month of chemotherapy, Smitty underwent a 10-hour surgery. For the next 66 days, he was on a feeding tube. "It's still scary to think about," he says. "Less than 19 percent of people survive five years from the day they get a diagnosis like the one I got."
By the end of his treatments, Smitty was far from the jolly fat man he used to be. The 53-year-old now has a jagged scar that stretches from the middle of his neck down to the center of his chest. He lost a staggering 160 pounds in less than three months. The incisions in his neck left him with a high-pitched voice that makes his speech sound strained.
"It's stuff you take for granted," he says. "When I put my Shriner fez on, it just falls right over my face. I can't even finish a piece of chicken, let alone half of a hamburger. But what really kills me is that I'm a big bullshitter, and I can't hardly talk anymore."
He keeps a detailed list of other sick workers alongside his own stack of EPA documents. "The problem is, I can't afford to pay $100,000 for an attorney just to look at the thing," he says.
There are other concerns too, like "How do we prove there is anything to it?" or "Who do we hold responsible?"
Most of all, Smitty says he simply doesn't have the zeal to take on corporations or governments the way he did in his union days. "I know I should try harder," he says. "I should think about it more, but after all I've been through, I just want to push it out of my head."
In June, Smitty discovered that he was terminal. The doctors found an inoperable tumor lodged between his heart and lungs. They gave him nine months to a year to live. "I'm taking it all right, but my family's not," he says. "I knew from the time I was little that God decided when I'd be born, who my parents would be, and when I'd go. If He decided that this is my time, it's my time."
Dave Junkin figures that the risk of getting sick was just part of the job.
"The wastewater industry, we all knew it wasn't safe," he says. "If you've ever been to one of those places, all the stuff that ends up there, it's just not healthy. But a job's a job."
The 54-year-old spent 25 years working for the county, often doing generator maintenance at Plant 36. Junkin tells his story matter-of-factly, tempering the sad parts with punch lines and a "whattaya gonna do?" demeanor. He isn't looking for pity, just peace of mind.
One day in 2000, he passed out on the job. For the next several months, doctors ran every test they could. Junkin continued to work, despite chronic fatigue. "At the height of it, I was like a zombie," he says. "I had no strength to even go to the bathroom. And the worst part was that I couldn't sleep either. I had horrible insomnia."
Finally, he was diagnosed with heavy-metal toxic poisoning. "I was off the charts," Junkin says. "They found lead, mercury, and cadmium in my body. The doctor said I was his first triple cocktail ever. He'd never treated someone for all three of those before."
The doctors were certain that his condition was related to his job. He worked on generators that used highly toxic cadmium batteries. Still, they didn't know where all the lead and mercury came from; Junkin never mentioned the toxic dump site.
When asked about the extremely high levels of lead and mercury found in the soil at Plant 36, he sighs. "Life's a gamble," he says.
He does, however, find it eerie that so many of the guys at Plant 36 got sick. "They've had a pretty high turnover rate," he says. "I would joke about how guys would drop like flies -- and then I got added to the list, and it wasn't funny no more."
Still, Junkin is hesitant to link all the illnesses to the old dump site. He says he never drank the water, because it smelled so bad. "And wouldn't we all have to have the same sort of cancer anyway?" he asks.
Not necessarily, says Devra Davis, an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh.
"While it's extremely difficult to determine whether or not the pattern of cancer you see is due to chance or exposure in residential areas, we do know that there are more than 50 different compounds that have been identified that increase the risk of workers who work with these regularly -- especially benzene," he says.
But Davis adds that the lack of studies done on environmental exposure makes it difficult for doctors to link a chemical to a specific ailment.
"George" is a former plant worker who asked that his name not be used because he still works for the county. When he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2001, he brought the EPA report to his doctor, hoping his physician could make the link. "I immediately associated my cancer with all that, but my doctor didn't want to hear a word of it, because I also smoked," he says. "But I also drank that water daily."
Now in remission, George agrees with Junkin that fighting is pointless. "I figured I'd be fighting this in court until my grandchildren's grandchildren were dead, so I gave up," he says. "I'm so close to [retirement], I hope I just get out and stay healthy."
Linda Milford takes a very different view. "Yes, the job pays great. Yeah, the benefits are great. But it's not worth your life."
On a sunny day in May, Windy Albert is too sick to come to the door when he hears the knock. He shouts to his guest to come in, but his voice is so weak, he has to say it three times before he's heard.
He leans on a walker. He doesn't smile, because it takes too much effort.
Last September, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He and his wife were on a cruise when he felt a terrrible pain in his shoulder. X-rays revealed that a tumor was pressing against his lung.
Albert, who began work at Plant 36 in 1981, was skeptical about the dump-site hype until Fred got sick. Then Mike. Then Smitty. Then George. Then he got sick too. "All of us got to talking, and I started believing it," he says. "These guys weren't crackpots or radicals. They just wanted to make a living."
Albert recently talked to Smitty on the phone, but their voices were so weak they could hardly hear each other.
A week after Albert was interviewed by Scene, he was dead.
Linda and the surviving plant workers attended calling hours to pay their respects to Albert's wife, Eleanor, and do their best to comfort her. But Linda doesn't even trust her own words.
"I used to have hope," she says. "There is no hope. I try to give the other guys hope, you know, help them grasp for that last bit, but -- I don't know. I just don't know, honey."