J.C. Conner looked over a picture taken several years ago at Old Country Buffet. There’s a group of about 40 elderly men enjoying the day. And there are Xs put over 25 of the people in the picture.
“I’ve put an X on them as they die,” said Conner, who like those in the picture is a former employee of Blockson Chemical, known as Olin since the latter bought it in 1955. He never gave much thought to how they died; probably just old age.
But other former workers, and families and friends of former workers at the plant, noticed a lot of those Blockson-Olin employees died of cancer.
They wondered if the cancer and some other health problems they saw later in life could be the result of conditions at the company, which made acids and caustic compounds for cleaning until the plant closed in 1991.
After a Sept. 20 Herald News article appeared, they now wonder if there were other reasons for the health problems. Following up on a USA Today investigation, the article mentioned that Blockson/Olin was one of about 200 private companies nationwide that had secret government contracts in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s to produce uranium for weapons manufacturing.
So secret was it that the community, and even many Blockson employees, were unaware a radioactive material was being processed in Building 55 at the 1,000-acre plant on Patterson Road west of Brandon Road.
For about 10 years, from 1952 to 1962, Blockson-Olin produced about 2 million pounds of low-level uranium, a byproduct of phosphorus needed for cleansers, for the government.
Relatives of former employees said for years that if you worked at Blockson, you get cancer. Vince Driscoll and Ken Kurtz said their dads, who worked in Building 55, and other relatives who worked at the plant had cancer and/or died from it.
Since the Sept. 20 Herald News article, others have come forward as well to say their friends and loved ones died of lymphomas or lung cancer. But not all worked in Building 55, where the uranium was being extracted. Some couldn’t remember where their relatives worked, and Olin officials are still looking for records.
Conner, who worked as a maintenance millwright at Blockson/Olin from 1950 to 1982, heard through the grapevine what was going on in Building 55. But he didn’t have the necessary FBI clearance to go in.
“We just knew they were taking some yellow stuff and bagging it up,” he said.
But every now and then, he would be asked if he wanted to earn some extra cash by going in to some of the acid tanks and knocking out the residue from the walls and ceilings.
Now at 79, he has emphysema. He doesn’t know whether it has anything to do with his work at Blockson/Olin or the pipe smoking he gave up in 1972.
Carl Berglund, a former security guard at Building 55, doesn’t think the company had anything to do with the ills that killed people 20, 30 or 40 years later. He knew people who weren’t in the best of shape when they were working there. Some had diabetes, he said, some smoked and drank. And that wasn’t caused by acids or uranium produced at the company, he said.
Berglund and Mario Tonelli, who now heads the Blockson Retirees Club, remembered the company as a good place to work. They and Conner said the workplace was like a family, where you saw the Block brothers often and could have a good time even when working hard. Conner said a good number of employees, like him, were from The Hill, hired when other employees went on strike in the late 1940s. They were glad to have the good, solid jobs.
Driscoll said he can’t recall his dad ever wearing protective gear when he was working in Building 55. But Berglund said he saw workers every day, and they were wearing protective gloves, mask, eye wear and, later, hard hats. He also said there was no way the six or seven workers in Building 55 wouldn’t have known they were working with uranium, what with the need for FBI clearances.
And Berglund also noted the many other buildings in the Blockson/Olin compound produced cleaning acids and caustic substances, all of which could have caused health problems if workers didn’t take the proper precautions.
Tonelli also doesn’t believe uranium at the company caused any longterm health problems for workers. Building 55 was so isolated from the others and so restricted that few were ever able to get in there, he said.
Asbestos is another concern entirely, Tonelli said.
“(Company officials) finally decided that asbestos was causing a lot of health problems,” he said. “So they had us tear it down. Nobody was wearings masks or gloves or anything like that.”
Some suspect a link
Other friends and relatives of former Blockson/Olin employees are convinced there is some kind of link:
Rick Reavis broke down in tears as he remembered his father-in-law, Harold Burkhart, a more than 30-year Blockson/Olin employee, struck down by a rare form of cancer five years ago at age 75.
James Holloway thought hard about his dad, Nathan, who worked at Blockson/Olin from 1952 to 1990, who died of prostate cancer six years ago at age 70.
Linda Santerelli wonders if the asthma that ultimately crippled her stepfather, Barney Hood, had anything to do with the dust and other chemicals at the plant where he worked for 15 years until he was disabled in 1985 and died seven years later of a heart attack at age 60. The same asthma she got after working at the plant as a guard for a short time.
Tough case to crack
The answer, officials say, is we may never know if any of the illnesses in current or former Blockson/Olin employees is related to uranium, acid vapors or anything else floating in and around the dozens of buildings that once formed the compound.
One problem is that there has not been any formal study on the Blockson/Olin employees, said Gary Anderson, director of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Chicago Region. And from what he has heard through Herald News reports, it would be difficult to nail down a correlation.
Finding a connection would be easier if a large number of the employees had been stricken with one particularly rare form of cancer or another disease, or if they had died at a relatively young age. But most of those who called The Herald News said their relatives and friends who worked at Blockson/Olin, even at Building 55, died in their 70s or 80s.
And many died of cancer or heart attacks, Anderson added, by themselves two of the most prevalent killers of our time.
Even those still alive who have cancer or other health problems are in their upper 70s or early 80s. At nearly 82, Tonelli is an avid golfer within range of hitting his late father’s age of 101. Other than having a few teeth pulled, Berglund says he’s doing fine as he approaches 80.
Shaky correlations haven’t stopped several people who saw the Sept. 20 Herald News article from finding out about whether they can get some compensation for the ills of their relatives. The story mentioned a federal bill being hashed out between the U.S. House and Senate that 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.
“I’m getting (phone calls from) people who are wondering when I’m going to cut a check,” said Richard Allen, manager of the office of environmental safety for the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety.
Not only wouldn’t he handle the payments that would be the U.S. Department of Energy even if the bill were approved, but Allen, like Anderson, said the correlation between those who worked in uranium extraction and those who developed cancers would be tough to prove.
One way, he said, would be to find out if there is any uranium in the stricken person’s system. But that wouldn’t help former Blockson/Olin workers who already have died of cancer. Coroners generally do not look for uranium contamination in a person’s bone marrow during an autopsy.
“That is something we could have kept track of had we known,” said Will County Coroner Patrick K. O’Neil. “But I wasn’t made aware of any concerns about the company.”
Another problem with filing any potential claims is that though OSHA was formed in 1970, it wasn’t until more than a decade later that the agency mandated companies to keep records of workplace problems, Anderson said. Even after that, he added, they can go back only six months to trace a potential problem.
Still, there are lingering concerns about the plant. Allen said the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety also is waiting for records from Blockson/Olin. Officials want to make sure the site, which is for sale, still does not have any contamination.
A 1977 study conducted by the federal government found elevated levels of uranium at Building 55, (shuttered or used as a warehouse, depending on whom you ask, since the uranium extraction ceased in 1962).
On its own, uranium contamination doesn’t go away for billions of years, Allen said. He would hope Olin would have taken precautions in how they disposed of the remnants of Building 55 and dumped it in a secure landfill for such hazardous waste.
Building 55 was tested for contamination before it was demolished, and none was found, said Curt Richards, a spokesman for Olin. The debris was disposed of according to federal and state guidelines, he said.
But asked to produce those records by the state and The Herald News, Smith said they were looking for them as well.
Richards added that he is not aware of any claims filed by current or former employees regarding their health.
Despite the emphysema that costs him $300 a month in prescriptions, Conner holds no grudges with the company.
“It was a fun place to work,” he said. “And I thank God for letting me live this long.”