Tony Ross’ bat connected, sending the softball rocketing to the fence. While the outfielders scrambled after what should have been a home run, Ross stopped at second, doubled over and gasped for breath. Then he sat down on the base.
The two teams playing were made up of machinists, custodians and guards from the late shift at the Bannister Federal Complex in south Kansas City. They had met, as usual, around midnight on the baseball diamond at the nearby Hickman Mills High School to play until four or five in the morning.
Ross was about 50 years old then. He’s 65 now, retired, and suffering from chronic bronchitis and asbestosis. He’s a Vietnam veteran, and one of thousands of people who worked at the Kansas City Plant making non-nuclear components for nuclear weapons. The plant has been known as Bendix, AlliedSignal and Honeywell — the companies that have operated it under contract with the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration since 1949.
Though no nuclear components are manufactured at the Kansas City Plant, its workers are exposed to plenty of hazardous materials. The U.S. Department of Labor maintains a list of 785 toxic substances verified as having been used there.
The 60-year-old building will soon be abandoned. Honeywell is condensing its services and moving to a new, $673 million facility at Missouri Highway 150 and Botts Road. The General Services Administration, which also has offices at the Bannister Federal Complex, is pulling up its stakes, too. In June, representatives from Honeywell and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources told members of the City Council that they are proud of the cleanup that has already been done at the site, at a cost of $65 million.
But people have been abandoned, too: former workers who live with chronic pain, who struggle to breathe or who have died.
When Ross was 19 years old, he worked as a locker-room attendant at Brookridge Golf & Country Club in Overland Park. One day, a golfer at the club misplaced his wallet. When Ross found the wallet and returned it intact, the man offered Ross a tip: The Bendix plant was hiring, and he should apply.
Ross took the advice and was hired at the Kansas City Plant as a custodian in October 1964. “We made three dollars an hour, plus vacation time and benefits,” he recalls.
Ross took out trash and cleaned the building and the grounds around the plant. Infrequently, and only in certain areas, supervisors ordered him to wear gloves as well as tape along the wrists and ankles of his coveralls to avoid contamination. Contamination from what, exactly, Ross never knew.
“We had meetings,” Ross says, “but they didn’t tell us anything about safety. They told us what was coming up next, as far as the job, stuff like that, but they didn’t tell us nothing about safety. I don’t think they thought about it.”
He later became a general machinist, then a tool and die maker. As a skilled laborer, Ross worked in a room that was kept at a constant 56 degrees so that metals could be fabricated to exact specifications. Ross says he didn’t always know what the parts were for, only that they had to be precise. He worked with metals such as copper, gold, steel, aluminum and beryllium. The latter is an element that, when combined with another metal to form an alloy, is vital to the space program as well as to the manufacture of weapons because of its lightness and ability to withstand high temperatures.
Beryllium is a carcinogen whose harmful properties were first reported in the early 1940s. Its dust is particularly corrosive to the lungs. Medical experts say there is no safe level of beryllium exposure.
Workers at Honeywell handled beryllium with their bare hands, Ross says. He saw it in every form: sanded, melted, chipped, cut, bent. “You just picked it up, if it was small enough of a piece.”
Ross also remembers the asbestos remediation that went on at Honeywell in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The workers removing the asbestos in his department wore protective suits and respirators. The abatement took place behind a plastic sheet, which opened and closed and sometimes fell down. “We’re in the same area working, with nothing on … running the machines,” Ross says. In the mornings, the delivery trucks that ran up and down the halls inside the facility kicked up the dust “just like driving down a dusty road.”
Two years ago, when prescription medication no longer seemed to help Ross’ chronic bronchitis, his doctor sent him to Dr. Thomas Beller, a pulmonary specialist with an office at 64th Street and Prospect. Beller knew about the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, begun in 2001 to assist workers and contractors suffering from illnesses linked to toxic exposures at Department of Energy sites. Through Beller, Ross learned that he has asbestosis and that he is eligible for a settlement of up to $150,000 from the Department of Labor through the EEOICP.
“Before I saw Dr. Beller, I didn’t have a clue what was going on,” Ross says. “I didn’t really know how bad I was until he was explaining it to me.”
But money won’t right the wrongs that Ross and his fellow workers have endured, he says. “I feel like they just used a bunch of people. I know two who died just last week, both in their early 60s.”
Macy McKinley Roberts — friends call him “Mack” — thought he was one of the lucky ones when he was hired at the Kansas City Plant in 1968.
“I didn’t think no blacks were qualified to work at a plant like Bendix because they didn’t hire any of us,” Roberts says. “I guessed you had to be a genius or something. Once I got inside the plant, I saw so many jobs that we were qualified — and, some of us, overqualified — to do.”
Roberts was familiar with precision microscopes from his classes at Manual High School, the vocational high school, and thought he could work as a parts inspector. Instead, he was put “on the broom” as a custodian in the maintenance department.
Roberts and his co-workers cleaned in their street clothes. He could feel the sting of hydrochloric acid on his skin when he walked past certain doors. Roberts remembers wearing protective gear on only one occasion. The job paid overtime. “They called it the MOCA cleanup,” he says. “It was considered a big deal.” So he volunteered for it.
MOCA (from the mixture of methylene and chloroaniline, pronounced mocha) is an epoxylike material that was used in the aerospace, weapons and electronic industries until 1973, when the Occupational Health and Safety Administration ruled that it could cause cancer. All Roberts knew was that it looked as though a mixture of corn flakes, Wheaties and maple syrup had exploded, covering the walls and countertops of a lab.
“We had ladders and scrapers and everything,” he says. “It was a mess. We took it lightly. Some of us would pull off our masks and talk while we worked.”
The MOCA cleanup took several days and two dozen workers. At the end of each day, Roberts says, volunteers were instructed to take off their gear and discard it in certain areas. He never saw where the buckets of MOCA were taken.
Roberts left the plant in ’73, having witnessed several layoffs. He wanted job security, which he got as a laborer with Missouri Gas Energy. He worked for the utility company for 28 years.
Back and knee pain forced Roberts to leave MGE on disability. Then, two years ago, doctors at Menorah Medical Center discovered that he had chronic lymphomic leukemia. He underwent two rounds of chemotherapy. For the moment, no further treatment is necessary. He’s optimistic but too cautious to describe his cancer as being in remission.
A brother-in-law of Roberts who worked at the Kansas City Plant also was diagnosed with cancer. “Before I knew it, he was gone,” Roberts says. The EEOICP offers compensation for surviving family members of energy workers who have died from work-related complications, but the Department of Labor determined that Roberts’ sister and her son weren’t eligible for compensation.
Roberts’ wife’s medical insurance has covered his medical bills so far. “I’ve never gotten anything from Bendix or AlliedSignal or any union,” he says.
More than 10 years ago, Roberts estimates, he got a letter in the mail about the Department of Labor’s health screenings. But when he went looking for the lab in North Kansas City, he couldn’t find it. “I believe they closed up shop,” he says. “It’s been kind of strange, the way this stuff has been handled, because they never stayed with it, you know? It’s been handled very poorly.”
It was Ivory Mae Thomas’ job to clean the X-ray room at the Kansas City Plant. She was hired in 1979. Every day, she emptied the trash cans, swept, mopped, buffed and dusted inside the white-walled room, which contained two X-ray machines strong enough to penetrate dense metal.
One night in 1995, at the end of her 3 p.m.-midnight shift, plant supervisors caught up with Thomas in a motorized cart and told her to get in. “Someone discovered that some of the radiation got loose, and I was stepping all in it,” the 82-year-old tells The Pitch.
Thomas was whisked to an emergency shower room, where she was stripped of her apron, socks and shoes and directed to wash her hands with special soap. That same night, she says, a plant cleaning crew went to her home. Workers were also sent to clean the interior of a car belonging to a co-worker with whom she rode to the plant every day.
At work the next day, Thomas was told only that she had been exposed to radiation — she wasn’t told how much. The plant’s medical staff checked her over once more and told her that she was fine.
But Thomas didn’t feel fine for very much longer. “I ain’t going to say that the radiation caused it,” she says, “but since I stepped in it, I ain’t been no good.”
She got winded easily. “It got to where I had to take the elevator just to go from one floor to another. I couldn’t buff no more. Before I stepped in it, I was doing all right,” Thomas says. On her doctor’s advice, Thomas retired in 1997. She was disappointed to have to retire two years short of her 20-year mark.
Doctors discovered a tumor between her heart and one of her lungs. She doesn’t remember the year. In surgery, she had part of one lung removed, and complications required the installation of a pacemaker. The tumor was benign.
The Department of Labor covered the $63,000 pacemaker procedure at Research Medical Center, Thomas recalls, but declined any further compensation because Thomas had admitted that she was a smoker in the past. (She quit in the 1970s.)
Last month, Thomas was surprised to receive a letter from the Department of Labor, informing her that she could be re-evaluated if she contacted a caseworker from the EEOICP in Paducah, Kentucky, where claims for this region are processed.
Thomas’ son, David Hunt, called the number for the caseworker and tried to track down records from his mother’s radiation exposure. “They gave me the runaround,” says Hunt, who is 62 and sick himself with prostate cancer and a breathing disorder. “They said to call this number, call that number, and I ended up back where I started from.”
Thomas and Hunt are unsure of the status of Thomas’ case. A Department of Labor representative at the Paducah office declined to comment, citing patient confidentiality.
“They didn’t give me a penny,” Thomas says.
She lives on Social Security and her Honeywell pension. Her medications are expensive. “It’s a rough time right now,” she says.
Hunt says of Honeywell, “I was hurt, how they did my mother. I think it’s wrong of them to wait this long time, like they’re hoping she’ll die off, hoping she’ll go away, and the story would go away. That’s what it’s about.”
Linda Coleman is a very young-looking 57, with a gentle, frequent laugh. This year, she was diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease.
She worked at Honeywell for just four months.
Coleman was 16 years old and the youngest person working at the Kansas City Plant in 1968. It was a summer job for her, from June to August. Coleman was one month pregnant when she started the job, doing clerical work for the engineers’ secretaries. “We were like the gofers,” Coleman says. “Every day, we went through the plant, to the supply room, to get whatever supplies were needed. Or if there was a message to give to someone, something like that, then we did it. And usually, it was me.” She laughs. “But I didn’t mind. I didn’t like sitting around at a desk. Actually, that’s when I decided I didn’t want to be a secretary.”
Coleman was a single mother when, a few years later, she heard that the Honeywell plant was hiring again. Her security clearance had not yet expired, so she reapplied. She was called back in for a physical, which, she remembered from her previous employment, was usually good news.
“The doctor says to me, right before I leave, ‘You need to do exercises that make you breathe deeply.’ I said, ‘Huh? What do you mean?’ He wouldn’t explain it.” Coleman says. She regularly ran for exercise, so the doctor’s advice seemed odd.
The plant never got back to her about the job.
In 2000, Coleman says, her whole body broke out in hives that wouldn’t go away. She saw an allergist, who couldn’t determine what was causing the reaction. He prescribed antihistamines for the hives, which she took daily; whenever she stopped, the hives came back.
The same year, Coleman received a letter. It was addressed to her maiden name and arrived in her mailbox at her current workplace, in the downtown federal building. The letter urged former Honeywell workers to be part of a health screening at the Department of Labor’s expense. She decided to go for testing.
“I never thought I would have anything,” Coleman says, “but in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, Anything that can be caught, I would catch.”
At North Kansas City Hospital, doctors took several samples of Coleman’s blood and sent them to labs in Denver and Philadelphia. The samples came back positive for sensitivity to beryllium. She says, “At that point, I had no idea what beryllium was.”
Coleman was given a list of occupational-illness specialists recommended by the Department of Labor, which will pay for her treatments for life. None of the specialists are in the Kansas City area. The doctor who came with the most recommendations, Coleman found, was Lee Newman, at Denver’s National Jewish Health.
When she visited the hospital at National Jewish for the first time, Coleman says, she encountered a lobby packed with former Department of Energy workers. Many were strapped to oxygen tanks.
“I don’t want to be on oxygen,” she says. “Of course, I will, if that’s the only way I can … . ” She trails off.
Newman explained that Coleman’s allergic reaction to beryllium could turn into chronic beryllium disease at any time. Chronic beryllium disease, or berylliosis, interferes with the lungs’ ability to transfer oxygen to the bloodstream. It’s treatable, but there is no cure.
“He [Newman] couldn’t believe the levels [of exposure] that I had, for the very short time I’d been at Honeywell,” she says.
The son she was pregnant with in the summer of ’68, while working at Honeywell, died in 1996 of lymphoma. He was 27. Coleman says she asked doctors at National Jewish whether her beryllium exposure could have contributed to her son’s illness. She says they told her no.
Coleman visited Denver four times from 2001 to 2007 for monitoring and for a sequence of tests that included a painful bronchoscopy, which takes tissue samples from the lungs. The tests were so unpleasant, Coleman opted not to go to Denver in 2008.
Early this year, Coleman says, she could tell something was wrong. “It’s hard to walk and talk and breathe at the same time,” she says.
She went back to National Jewish for testing this past summer and was diagnosed with berylliosis. The diagnosis triggered paperwork on the $150,000 settlement from the Department of Labor, for which Coleman now qualifies. But she’s reluctant to fill it out. If she accepts it, she can’t join any future class-action lawsuits against the DOE or Honeywell.
Accepting the money also means admitting that she’s sick.
“I was angry at first and scared,” Coleman says. “I still don’t know what to think. I don’t know how long it takes to progress. Everyone tells me there’s no cure and it’s fatal. What do I need to be doing? Should I quit my job? Should I be doing something else, something fun?”
She tries to stay positive, to keep laughing. “I plan on living a long time,” she says. “That’s why I don’t think $150,000 is enough, for the suffering, you know what I’m saying? Because when you’re sick, you’re sick. There’s nothing like not being able to catch your breath.”
Maurice Copeland was hired at the plant in 1968, became one of its first black supervisors in 1988 and retired in 2000. Now, he’s one of Honeywell’s loudest critics.
As a supervisor, he says, he never received any safety training to impart to his workers regarding the handling of dangerous chemicals on the factory floor.
“The government wrote the book on safety processes in 1943,” he says. “They can say, ‘This is what should be done.’ They might even say, ‘This is what we did.’ Well, I say they’re lying. No one ever trained me on the protections on how to handle these materials.”
Copeland’s memories from inside the plant brim with details that would make an OSHA inspector faint. Workers and supervisors goofed off by rolling marble-sized balls of mercury down the hallways. Employees soaked their fingertips in a solvent called trichloroethane, finding that it made their nails grow a quarter inch overnight. “Especially when we were jitterbuggin’ back then,” Copeland says, “you’d want the girls at the club to say, ‘Oh, you got pretty nails.'”
Copeland is in good health, but he’s hard on himself when he thinks about all the workers he sent to the plant’s medical department with complaints of coughs and lingering colds. The medical staff handed out cough drops and Robitussin and sent people back to work. “That medical department has been treating people for respiratory problems like they’re the common cold for over 40 years, knowing it could have been berylliosis,” Copeland says.
Copeland convenes a meeting at the home of a former plant worker who asked to go by a pseudonym, Irene. Another former worker, Herman Oates Jr., also attends. Oates, 71, plated metal in the factory from 1968 to 1986. Irene worked in the maintenance department from 1982 until 2003. Her janitorial work required being on her hands and knees, sweeping behind vats of chemicals, and using a cherry picker to reach the factory ceiling in order to dust pipes, all while wearing street clothes.
“We had to clean the big industrial fan houses, the boiler rooms, all that,” Irene says. “When they found areas that were contaminated heavy, that’s when they would rope it off and wouldn’t allow anyone else in there, but we had to go in and clean it up.”
She never wore a mask, she says. “We’d sweep, and sometimes they had us wet it down, but in the beginning we were just spreading dust everywhere.”
Oates often worked over heated tanks of chemicals. In Department 71, he remembers, “We put parts into this machine and put metal on them — copper, chrome, gold. We put those parts on an X-ray machine to check the thicknesses of the layers. That’s radiation. We was exposed to all kinds of junk in that place.”
Irene went to the Department of Labor’s medical screenings but didn’t test positive for beryllium sensitivity.
In 2005, Irene’s primary physician sent her to a specialist, who found lung cancer. After surgeons removed a portion of Irene’s lower left lung, they found that the tissue was also infected with berylliosis. Her doctor told her that a steroid cream she had used to treat hives may have prevented an earlier diagnosis. (Honeywell routinely offered steroid cream to workers who complained of hives or other skin irritations.)
Irene undergoes testing every three months to keep an eye on the disease. But even though her lung biopsy proved that she has berylliosis, she says she has been denied compensation from the EEOICP because the disease hasn’t shown up in blood tests. “They [the case managers] told me they wanted to see this condition progress,” Irene says. “They even said they’d wait and see if I got another cancer. Now why would I have to get another cancer? I ask them, ‘Do you want me to die?'”
Irene and her doctor have submitted a revised claim to the Department of Labor. A ruling is pending.
Oates has prostate cancer, high blood pressure and degenerative arthritis. He lives on benefits that he gets as a Vietnam vet and from Social Security. He says he has had a cough for the past 20 years.
“That’s another thing,” Irene chimes in. “I have this hoarseness I can’t explain. I take a ton of medication.”
Oates smiles darkly. “Welcome to the club.”
The club to which Oates refers grows more exclusive every year. He and Copeland can name dozens of former co-workers who are now deceased.
“We just buried one Saturday,” Copeland says.
As of November 16, 2009, the EEOICP has paid nearly $22 million on claims filed by Kansas City Plant workers, according to Department of Labor data. So far, 643 Kansas City Plant workers have sought compensation. The program has paid on just 172 of their claims.
Patrick Hoopes, the deputy manager of operations for the Department of Energy, says the Kansas City Plant, over its 60 years, has always been in compliance with whatever federal safety regulations have been in place. “There has been a progression of improvement to better and more rigorous safety and health standards as our corporate knowledge has improved,” he says. He adds that the site is a model for worker health and safety.
According to Hoopes, the amount of beryllium manufactured in the plant is comparable to amounts used in industrial machining in the private sector. “It’s just one common industrial hazard,” he says. “It was all monitored, all collected and recycled. Everyone knew they were working with that material, so it wasn’t, like, a surprise.” Hoopes himself hasn’t been screened for beryllium sensitivity in the 23 years he has worked at the Kansas City Plant. “I have not been close enough to the operations to think it was necessary to do so,” Hoopes says. “I’ve always been an observer or a checker.”
Hoopes says the Department of Labor made every effort to notify former workers of the EEOICP’s free medical screenings, working with union officials to identify “something like 30,000” plant workers and contractors. It published press releases in newspapers and union literature to catch anyone who might have been missed. “I’m not aware of lots of people saying they’ve missed this information,” Hoopes says. When informed that, according to the Department of Labor, only 643 local workers have filed claims, he says, “I don’t have that data … . But anyone who worked on this site would have access to the program.”
Copeland has considered gathering potential plaintiffs for a class-action lawsuit against the government and Honeywell. He knows, though, that litigation of such a case might well outlive its claimants.
“I didn’t think the government would expose me to anything dangerous,” Linda Coleman says. “I think there are a lot of people who worked in that plant who believed the same way I did.”
Tags: Editorial Feature, Honeywell International Inc., Ivory Mae Thomas, Linda Coleman, Ross