Vince Driscoll and longtime buddy Ken Kurtz sometimes would reminisce about their dads while working at their state transportation jobs.
Both of their dads, and some other relatives, worked at the old Blockson Chemical Co. on Patterson Road just south of Joliet.
Driscoll, of Channahon, and Kurtz also mused about how many former, and current, workers on the site, owned for some 45 years by Olin Chemical, have cancer. That included their dads and Driscoll’s cousin, who still works on the site.
“We used to kind of joke that if you worked for Blockson, you got cancer,” Driscoll said. “I bet if you checked, 80 percent of the people who worked their have cancer.”
Driscoll’s suspicions grew deeper recently when Kurtz saw a report based on a USA Today investigation. After 10 months of research looking into newly declassified documents, USA Today found that the federal government secretly had contracts with private companies such as Blockson in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s to help gather radioactive materials such as uranium, thorium and beryllium for weapons manufacturing.
Few were told
Few, if any, of the estimated 10,000 workers involved nationwide were told what they were doing, USA Today said, and very few in the respective communities knew about it, either. In fact, few knew about it until the U.S. Department of Energy turned over information, and cleanup of the sites, to the individual states and communities in 1995.
Even officials of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety were unaware of any of these sites, USA Today said, which included Blockson, now Olin, and the William E. Pratt Manufacturing Co. at Cass and Henderson streets in Joliet.
Herald News archives indicate that many people passed by the Pratt building in the 1940s and had little knowledge of the work that went on their. The company made some 8,000 different items, from roller bearings to duck decoys to parts for the guns that shot the real things.
None of the items mentioned included uranium rods that the USA Today investigation showed the Pratt company ground to be used for nuclear fuel from 1943 to 1946. According to the article, records suggest some radioactive dust may have been generated during intermittent operations. A 1989 federal survey found no significant levels of radiation, and a 1994 letter to the city from the U.S. Department of Energy said they site was clear of any contamination.
But a federal survey in 1977 did find elevated radiation in the soil and building at Blockson. But the study couldn’t pin down if the contamination was from uranium of waste linked to the company’s phosphate business.
Driscoll knows exactly which building the article is talking about. It was Building 55, one of dozens of buildings at the 1,000-acre Blockson site on Patterson Road west of Brandon Road. That’s where his dad, and Kurtz’s, worked.
All his dad ever knew, or talked about, is that the company made trisodium phosphate, a heavy-duty cleaner the Block family developed in 1925. The company basically took the phosphates used for detergents from phosphorus, a highly unstable chemical element.
Uranium is byproduct
One byproduct of the process is uranium, a radioactive element the government wanted for atomic weapons manufacturing, said Dan Guttman, an attorney and former director of the President’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments.
Guttman told The Herald News the government knew full well the negative effects of radioactivity at the time. Or they should have. In the 1920s, government officials saw women at plants like those in Ottawa, Ill., getting seriously ill after repeatedly wetting their paintbrushes with their tongues before dipping them in radium-dial paint for luminous clock faces.
The concentration of radium in the paint was higher than the concentration of uranium in the phosphorus, said Richard Allen, manager of the office of environmental safety for the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety. Uranium also was not considered as harmful in general as radium or plutonium, he added, but with only 10 years or so experience with the elements, no one was sure of the long-term effects of uranium at that point.
Regardless, Allen and Guttman both said the focus in the 1940s and ’50s was on production, not safety. Allen added that phosphorus was another source of uranium for the government. The usual source is ore.
That’s probably why Driscoll never saw his father wear any protective equipment while working in Building 55 except maybe work gloves. And he never heard his father talk of uranium likely because the focus during the Cold War was on secrecy.
An April 12, 1951, Herald News article mentions that Blockson received a contract from the federal government only for production of trisodium phosphate for Army use. The amount being produced, as well as the exact dollar amount in the contract was not released, the article said, “in line with a recent defense department move for greater secrecy.”
The amount of contracts was given only as “over $25,000,” according to the Herald News article. A few months later, Blockson received another such contract.
There was no further mention of the government contract work until 1957. A Herald News article said that Blockson was one of 77 companies recognized by Chemical Engineering Magazine for working with the government on recovering metals for weapons use.
The article also mentions that Blockson was the first company to recover uranium as a byproduct in the production of phosphoric acid.
Two years before, in 1955, the Herald News carried articles about Blockson becoming part of the Olin-Mathieson Chemical Co. From 1952 to 1962, according to USA Today, Blockson/Olin extracted about 2 million pounds of uranium for the government.
In August 1977, The Herald News carried a small article about teams from the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration conducting radiological surveys at the Patterson Road site. There were no stories of how the tests turned out.
Plant closed in 1991
The Patterson Road plant closed in June 1991 because it was no longer profitable, said Curt Richards of Olin. Where once several hundred workers were employed, there is now a group of about 12 (including Driscoll’s cousin) who maintain a state-required plant that treats the runoff from gypsum piles before it drains into the Des Plaines River.
Allen, of the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety, said results released in the early 1980s showed that there was some uranium contamination at around Building 55. The levels aren’t extremely high, he added, but since the mid-1980s, the state has been working with the U.S. Department of Energy to clean up the 200 or so private sites.
So contrary to the USA Today articles, Allen added, the state was not shocked when the Department of Energy dumped responsibility on their laps in 1995.
Most of the sites are either cleaned up or in the process, Allen said. Blockson/Olin poses some problems, however. For one, he said, it’s difficult to determine how much of the contamination there is from uranium extraction for the government or just the natural process of making trisodium phosphate or, later, fertilizers. The latter is not covered under federal cleanup regulations, he said.
The other problem is getting information from Blockson/Olin, Allen said. He has talked to company officials in Tennessee, and they say Building 55 was torn down three years ago. He said he would be concerned about contamination spreading if the building were torn down before that area were cleaned.
Richards said the company tore down the building because they are trying to make the 1,000-acre site more attractive to prospective buyers. Before that was done, Olin’s Richards said, studies were done to determine levels of contamination. He said there was no contamination found.
Allen said he certainly expected a prospective buyer would do an environmental assessment of the Olin property before signing a contract. Meanwhile, he’s waiting for Olin to provide record of the studies done in 1997. Richards said company officials have been having a difficult time finding records of that study, as well as anything to do with the uranium extraction.
Richards at one point said Olin officials believed the uranium extraction had stopped by the time the company took over Blockson in 1955. But the USA Today research, as well as the 1957 Herald News article on Blockson/Olin winning the award for the uranium extraction, seem to refute the company’s claims.
Richards said he also doesn’t know of any former or current employees who have filed claims against the company because of poor protection or other contamination. Allen said it would be very tough to prove anyway.
A Right to Know Act passed in 1986 provides communities know if any dangerous items or materials are being stored or made at a business. And Allen said improved workplace laws address the issue of proper clothing and other safeguards for hazardous materials.
A federal bill, already approved by the U.S. Senate, would provide lifetime medical benefits and at least $200,000 apiece to workers or heirs of employees made sick by exposure to radiation, silica or beryllium in plants doing work for the nuclear weapons program. Ben Fallon, an aide to U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Morris, said the bill is being held up in the House for an unrelated provision.
Not interested in money
Driscoll, however, says he’s not interested in the money. He has no idea if the cancer his father developed was a result of his 32 years of work for Blockson, some 10 or so in Building 55. A heart attack is what killed his dad at age 80 six years ago. Kurtz’s dad, Vernon, who also worked there more than 30 years, died of lymphoma five years ago at age 75.
Kurtz doesn’t know what to make of any cancer link, either. But he also knows his father-in-law, who drove trains in and out of the Patterson Road site on a regular basis, died of cancer.
Other former and current workers should know what they were put through, Driscoll added, so they can know what their futures might hold.
“I just want people to be aware that they were lied to,” Driscoll said.