Donald F. Metzen looks back with anger when thinking about his career, remembering all the chemicals he says he watched his company dump into Two Mile Creek.
For years, he suspected those chemicals caused his wife’s death and his ailments.
Today, he suspects the wastes from the defunct telephone equipment manufacturing company, Western Electric, also have something to do with the high cancer rates and other diseases in the Town of Tonawanda area where he worked.
As the state Health Department continues its study to learn why cancer rates are 10 percent higher than normal in the neighborhood, much of the public’s attention has been on the Linde Air Products plant, where radioactive materials were used in the 1940s to help produce the first atomic bomb.
But Metzen and some of his former co-workers say they believe Western Electric – just up the creek from the Linde site – contributed to the community’s health problems.
The Western Electric plant discharged “an awful lot” of dangerous chemicals into the creek, according to several former workers, including some who received settlements from the company on the condition that they remain silent about their experiences.
For decades, from the 1940s through at least 1970, Western Electric was dumping everything from watered-down corrosive mixes that contained fluoboric or sulfuric acids to toxic Azo dyes – classified by scientists as carcinogens – into company sumps that eventually discharged into Two Mile Creek, Metzen said.
“There was three to four million gallons each day of rinse water that went out into the creek,” he said.
After 31 years of manufacturing telephone cords and switches that included electric tin plating, wire drawing, enameling, color coding and hot dip tinning processes, Western Electric ceased Town of Tonawanda operation Nov. 4, 1977.
John Skalko, senior public relations manager for Lucent Technologies, the company that eventually took over Western Electric, said he is not familiar with what chemicals were discharged or the amount discharged into Two Mile Creek.
However, he said, Lucent has not been issued any citations in connection with the Town of Tonawanda plant. If chemicals were discharged at Western Electric before environmental controls were in place, the company did comply when regulations were enacted (in 1970), he said.
“I suspect, as soon as those things came under regulation, our operations did,” Skalko said. “We have a history of abiding by any regulations that are imposed. That’s just good business sense.”
Nevertheless, current and former residents from the neighborhood recall their experiences growing up along Two Mile Creek and are left wondering.
About the creek
Two Mile Creek begins its northerly flow on the Buffalo-Town of Tonawanda border. It passes the former Western Electric site and runs under railroad property, then north along the westernmost portion of the former Linde Air Products property, through Sheridan Park Golf Course and out into the Niagara River.
Don Wood is among those who remembers fishing for golf balls and wading in the “colors” of the murky creek along with many of his friends.
Wood, who now lives in Illinois and had colon cancer three years ago, recounts sliding into the creek as a kid and fishing for golf balls in foamy, stinky water that often had large areas of slimy green and brown patches.
Metzen didn’t see all the colors floating down the creek into the Niagara River, but he says he knows where they came from. When Western Electric was operating, he said, its discharge pipes routinely dumped wastes into the creek.
“That was a different department than mine, but they were dyes,” Metzen said of the colors Wood described. “They were Azo dyes – brown, red, green, all different colors – which were not supposed to be dumped into the sewer.”
“They were supposed to send it . . . Staten Island, but most of the time they didn’t,” Metzen said. “The state I think really thought it was going down there.”
It was around 1970, Metzen said, that the state made Western Electric stop discharging much of its industrial wastes from the three- to four-foot-diameter sumps inside the plant out into the creek.
“The state made them block off the drains – they filled them with concrete – so it couldn’t be discharged,” Metzen recalled.
The routine process
Western Electric routinely used chemicals as part of the electroplating process to develop telephone wires.
During equipment cleaning, the residual materials were then dumped into the sewers, according to company documents obtained by The Buffalo News.
“After a batch of cleaning solution has been in use for six months, it should be discharged and a fresh batch made up. To do this, open the drain pipe located in main tank and allow solution to discharge into sewer,” according to one internal company manual from 1970.
Another reference, under the heading “Chemical Process Control,” describes disposing of a tinning bath “by slow introduction into the sewer system as designated.” In some instances, the chemicals used in the cleaning solutions and then dumped into the sewers can be dangerous, particularly if they are mixed with water, according to scientific journals.
Among the chemicals associated with the process:
• Fluoboric acid, which should be kept away from water and out of sewers entirely, according to scientific journals. Long-term human exposure to the chemical is believed to be associated with headaches, lethargy, weakness, irritation of the central nervous system, seizures and thyroid problems.
• Stannous sulfate is also supposed to be kept away from water, as it may decompose or become unstable on exposure to moist air or water. Ingesting stannous sulfate is associated with gastrointestinal irritation, systemic effects on the central nervous system, heart and liver.
• Hydroquinone, which is on the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s list of hazardous substances, decomposes into carbon monoxide and can cause digestive tract irritation and respiratory tract infection.
In addition, Metzen and other former Western Electric workers said that highly toxic Azo dyes, which were used to color cloth threads that wrapped the wire, were dumped into company sumps that eventually discharged into Two Mile Creek.
The dyes were supposed to be landfilled but instead “were mixed to look like muddy water and discharged,” Metzen recounted.
“They were dumping dyes right in the sewers and all kinds of stuff in that creek, who knows what,” added another former Western Electric employee, who asked not to be identified. The man recently settled a workers’ compensation case against the company.
As a condition of the settlement, he said, he was prohibited from publicly discussing his work experience.
State environmental officials couldn’t readily comment on the specifics of Western Electric, given there is no current file on the company. But they said New York did not start regulating waste water discharges until 1970.
Today, all the chemicals mentioned above are state-regulated, subject to permits limiting the amount and rate at which they can be discharged, they said.
But if all of this indeed occurred, it is a cause for concern, said John Kieffer, an environmental and chemical engineer who helped oversee the closure of Love Canal.
“If those wastes were being put into Two Mile Creek, people along that creek and in that area would be affected by it,” he said.
The plant’s history
Western Electric began operations in the Town of Tonawanda in 1946, purchasing the former Curtiss-Wright buildings on Kenmore Avenue and Vulcan Street. The plant is just south of the Linde site, across Woodward Avenue and a set of railroad tracks.
Over the course of 30 years, the company spent millions of dollars upgrading the plant, including “an extensive sewer project . . . to eliminate a source of water pollution,” according to a 1969 published report.
In the early 1970s, Western Electric announced plans to move its operations – along with its 2,000 employees – to Elma. But the company was hit with with opposition from Erie County and the Town of Elma as well as citizen and environmental groups concerned about company plans to discharge into Buffalo Creek.
The state DEC eventually issued a conditional permit, but the Elma plant never opened.
Slumping demand for Bell System products led to a series of cutbacks at Western Electric, forcing the company to relocate its Town of Tonawanda operations out of state. The Buffalo plant was consolidated in Omaha, Neb., in 1977.
Western Electric as a company was assimilated into AT&T Technologies in the mid-1980s, and in 1996, when AT&T broke up into three separate companies, the remnants of Western Electric effectively became the new Lucent Technologies.
Today, the Town of Tonawanda site is Buffalo’s division for BFI’s waste systems. The Western Electric building in Elma has been occupied by Steuben Foods since 1985.
Metzen’s career history
A 1950 graduate of Canisius College in chemistry, Metzen was a manufacturing engineer at Western Electric from 1962 to 1977. He was in charge of corrosion control, supervising the electroplating of hundreds of miles of wire each week and as a result was directly exposed to a laundry list of hazardous chemicals.
At the time, he says, he never questioned what was going on, not wanting to jeopardize his job.
“I knew it, but there was nothing I could do about it,” he said. “What could you do about it?”
Metzen, 74 year old and now living on Grand Island, suffers from a series of illnesses and is being treated for high metal content in his bloodstream, fluoride sensitivity, breathing troubles, enlarged lymph nodes, unusually dense bones, numbness, gastrointestinal difficulties and other maladies.
If not for the chelation therapy, which Metzen still regularly undergoes to remove the toxic metals from his body, Metzen and his doctor say he would not be alive today.
“He was the sickest person I think I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Paul Cutler of Niagara Falls. “The metal levels in his body are getting better, and certainly some of his symptoms have gotten better.”
Since retiring, Metzen and some of his former co-workers have been fighting Western Electric, filing workers’ compensation claims that blame the company for many of their ailments, ranging from rheumatic problems to cancers.
Many have settled and in doing so signed forms saying they will not talk publicly about their work experiences. He was offered a settlement in 1997, in which the company conceded it was liable for his medical bills for Cutler’s chelation therapy. But despite the insistence of his attorney to take the deal, he refused to sign.
“It wasn’t much money for what I went through,” Metzen said.
For years, Metzen’s battle has been personal, on behalf of himself, his co-workers and his late wife, Colette, who died Nov. 9, 1999, of lung cancer.
That changed a year ago, however. When Metzen read about higher than normal cancer rates in the neighborhoods surrounding Linde, near Western Electric, he began questioning whether his concern was actually much larger than he previously suspected.
The state’s December 2001 study showed cancer rates in the 14150 and 14217 Tonawanda ZIP codes are “statistically significantly” higher – overall 10 percent higher – than expected.
The study revealed colorectal cancer was 25 percent higher than normal, bladder cancer was 26 percent higher, with thyroid cancer 81 percent higher than that normally expected.
Health officials are now conducting a follow-up study in the industrial neighborhoods around the Linde site. The first study covered people diagnosed with cancer from 1994 to 1998. The new study will identify cancer rates over as much as 10 years. State health officials said the study could be completed in about six more months.
The Linde Division of Union Carbide Corp. was the site of a secret government project to develop the first atomic bomb during World War II. Radioactive remnants from the project remain on the site and have been undergoing remediation efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since 1997.
Officials at Praxair, an industrial gas producer that now owns the Linde site, claim the low-level radioactivity there is not to blame for the high cancer rates in the surrounding neighborhood.
Residents and former Linde/Praxair employees are skeptical.
The company, nonetheless, maintains that studies have found no radioactive material in Two Mile Creek and further insists it never made its own manufacturing discharges there.
“We’re the scapegoat,” said Dennis A. Conroy, site manager for Praxair, which has taken over the Linde site. “People don’t understand radiation.”
Some hope the state Health Department’s newest neighborhood probe will shed some light on why higher cancer rates seem to be afflicting the area.
State health officials have cautioned, however, that while the excess cancer rates were “probably not due to chance,” there has been no established “cause and effect” link to environmental factors.