Area near former Amerock plant a toxic wasteland

September 7, 2011

Roger Hare (left) and LaVern Benjamin stand in front of the Northwest Community Center football field. Former residents allege the ground where the field is located was once used as a neighborhood dump and includes toxic chemicals. (Photo by Richard S. Gubbe)

Area could be declared another EPA Superfund site

• Former and current residents and Amerock employees recall toxic waste dumping in area west of Central Avenue, north of Auburn Street

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series exploring the pollution caused by toxic waste dumping in the area north of Auburn Street and west of Central Avenue on Rockford’s west side.

By Richard S. Gubbe
Contributing Writer

Roger Hare and LaVern Benjamin took a slow walk around the woods where they played as children around Kent Creek near the old Amerock plant. They recalled playing in and around the creek as kids in the 1950s and 1960s. They recalled the names of their friends, most of whom never saw 60 years of age.

They may never see 60, either.

As the two walked gingerly along the bike path north of the Northwest Community Center on North Johnston Avenue, they expressed concern for children who play there today.

It’s too late for me,” said Benjamin, who has experienced myriad health problems. “But I worry about the kids who play here now.”

A drainage pipe that comes from Amerock pours into Kent Creek. (Photo by Richard S. Gubbe)

Both Benjamin and Hare say their doctors have told them they’re going to die in less than two years. They both agree their health problems stem from the chemicals they were exposed to while playing in the creek behind the Amerock plant.

The testimonials and physical evidence uncovered by The Rock River Times over the past months show their claims are credible.

Long before the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) in 1970, Benjamin, Hare and numerous other residents in the area and workers at the Amerock plant have recalled toxic waste dumping in the area that lies west of Central Avenue and north of Auburn Street.

The Rock River Times has interviewed a dozen witnesses independently who confirmed the area has been a toxic wasteland for nearly 55 years, a place where garbage was dumped and where toxic chemicals poured into Kent Creek and into the fields behind and around the Northwest Community Center.

Amerock workers and their children have told horrific accounts of playing in the fields and in the creek while the homes they lived in were spewing toxic waste up from their wells into the drinking and bathing water. There has been an unusually high number of deaths of the children who lived in homes north of Auburn Street. Those still alive are walking medical nightmares.

The field where the pools of toxic chemicals were allegedly poured in and covered up. (Photo by Richard S. Gubbe)

Until recently, nothing was ever brought to light about the dumping or the tainted wells. Dozens of interviews, water tests for Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Coliform (E-coli) and heavy metals along with grotesque medical reports show the area is toxic.

The Rock River Times has uncovered testimony of the pollution from residents and former Amerock workers who expose massive toxic dumping by residents and businesses, along with locations of underground gasoline tanks in the area that point to the possibility of another EPA Superfund site in an area that lies just outside city limits.

Geraldine Russell, who ironically lived for 20 years at the same address Hare does now at 1316 N. Johnston Ave., across the street from the Northwest Community Center, recalled her loss of two children. Russell’s children grew up in the house within walking distance of the Amerock hardware manufacturing plant.

Her more than 20-year career at Amerock dates back prior to the first years the plant opened its facility on Auburn Street in 1956. She worked in the cyanide plating line, ate lunch and walked to and from work in the toxic wasteland behind Amerock. She has watched two of her three children die of “natural” causes long before the age of 50. Many other children who lived around them never saw the age of 60.

I must be a tough, old bird,” Russell, now 73, said from her home in Naples, Fla. “We lived there over 20 years. Everyone I knew has died. All my friends are gone now.”

Her son, “Big Mike” Russell, was a happy-go-lucky neighborhood protector who died at age 42. Mike and his friends, who included Hare and Benjamin, always played in the creek and around the creek. They even camped out there on weekends. Geraldine Russell said the neighbor kids looked forward to the outings where they would build a fire after pitching a tent around a chemical backdrop.

They’d go camping on Kent Creek and get a pillow case of food to bring down there,” she recalled. “They always had a great time there. Every week, they would have a party and cook out on the grill.”

The creek and the surrounding fields north and west of Amerock was where all the neighborhood children played, with or without their parents’ permission.

Our parents would say ‘don’t go down there; there’s poison down there,’” Hare recalled.

The boys were between 6 and 12 years old. They frolicked in the creek, which was much deeper than it is today. They ran around pools of what they described as a green gel the color of Mountain Dew. Benjamin would race his brother home through the ponds, navigating their way across the dirt that separated the ponds of green goo.

Another view of the field where the pools of toxic chemicals were allegedly poured in and covered up. (Photo by Richard S. Gubbe)

We’d come through there and race to get home,” Benjamin recalled. “There was a ridge of dirt we ran on and on each side was swamp. We didn’t know any better.”

Hare said a dare would often lead to immersion in the ponds.

Occasionally, we’d bet,” Hare said. “‘I bet you a Tootsie roll you won’t dive in there. It had a terrible smell to it.”

One day, their friend, Doug McKinney, took the dare and paid in blood.

Doug McKinney dove in there for a cigarette,” Hare recalled. “Ronnie Hinkle bet him a cigarette he wouldn’t dive in there. He stood on a 55-gallon drum and dove in there and laid his head open. We had to carry him back to this house and call the ambulance to take him to the hospital and stitch him up. He was about 10 then.”

Geraldine recalled the incident vividly.

Doug McKinney dove in and cut his head, and my son saved his life,” Russell said. Benjamin, Hare and Geraldine Russell and her son, John, all confirmed in separate interviews that “Big Mike” carried McKinney to the Russell house.

Geraldine’s son, John Wayne Russell, 57, recalled the incident from his home in Naples, Fla.

Doug McKinney just about decapitated himself on a barrel,” John Russell said. “He almost cut the top of his head off. It peeled his head back and descalped him. Mike carried him to the house.”

Benjamin, a veteran, tells of the drums in the ponds and the drums in the field just west of Amerock.

They would dig one hole, bury drums, cover them up with the dirt when they dug another one,” Benjamin said. “They buried the drums and covered them up.”

The field just south of Kent Creek was used as a neighborhood and business dumping ground. Geraldine Russell said everything was dumped there, including cars.

They would charge the kids a quarter a swing,” she said of a sledge hammer used to help crush the cars before they were buried. The kids, she said, paid to help compact the cars for burial. Hare, Benjamin and Russell all said residents used to take the drums out of the landfill after tipping them over and use them for burning trash. They said the barrels that were full had a green liquid with a white, foamy top. The ones that had been dumped had sludge on the bottom.

Where the football field is now was a private dump site owned by Vince Collins, now deceased.

They dumped everything down there,” Benjamin said. “It was the dump for the whole neighborhood. It was huge. Then, it was all covered up. You could go back there with a metal finder right now and everywhere you’d go, you’d find something.”

Hare said dirt to bury drums and garbage also came from the construction of the Auburn Manor apartments in the early 1960s.

There’s hundreds of them back there,” Hare said of the drums. “I never seen anyone remove them. They are underneath the football field, and a lot of them are in the ponds. They rolled them into the ponds. There were craters back there. They covered them up when they built Auburn Manor Apartments, dump truck after dump truck would go down the street. The football field is just garbage underneath, everybody’s garbage in this neighborhood. We all took it down there. It was $7 or $6 to dump it. That’s all the guy charged. It was all a Rockford landfill. People pulled their trucks in there and pushed out everything.”

Hare said dump trucks would drive dirt across a shallow part of the creek to bury the ponds with dirt. There was also a piece of heavy equipment used. Today, no trees grow where the ponds are alleged and where trees grow surrounding them just south of the border of Searles Park.

They had the creek dammed up at one point, and the water backed up into people’s yards,” Hare said. “They moved them pools around. They had a crane that they dug them out with. When they dug a new one, they would cover the barrels from the old one when they dug a new pond. When there’s snow on the ground, you can see the craters.”

Benjamin echoed Hare’s story and added a strange addendum.

Vince Collins owned the land,” Benjamin said. “Vince Collins had a crane down there, and he dug the holes, and they brought the barrels in. As soon as it was all covered up, he called my dad to cut it up (the crane) with a cutting torch. It took three months to cut up the crane. It was a huge crane. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to cut up an expensive piece of equipment like that.” Benjamin and Hare said the crane had a barrel to dig dirt on the end.

We knew it as the Collins junkyard,” John Russell said. “He had several big ponds. After the incident, Mr. Collins filled it in. I can remember I was about 12 or 13. He said why he filled it in was to keep the kids out, but it was really to cover up the barrels. I can remember his (LaVern’s) dad, Art, cutting it up with a torch.”

Russell said he lived on the block from 1959 up until he was 17 or 18. In the late 1970s, he went to work for Amerock.

There was these tubes coming out from Amerock to Kent Creek,” he said. “Chemical suds. We would swim upstream to stay away from it. Later on, I worked for Amerock in the plating department. They still had the same drainage problem coming out the back from the plating department. I worked in the plating department for two or three years. Lots of hydrochloric acid. Amerock figured it would be cheaper to run it into the creek.

You could see the drainage pipes hanging out. We were all kind of leery about it,” Russell continued. “It was purple and sudsy and smelled. It (the tube from the plant) was at least a foot in diameter and came directly from the factory about 150 yards to the north. It came out of the bank and into the creek.”

Russell recalled the same barrels that were seen on the Collins property were the same ones he saw at the plant.

I do remember seeing the barrels on skids,” Russell said. “Mr. Collins used to run us off as kids. Mr. Collins had direct access up to the Amerock dock in back. The fence had an opening. There were four 55-gallon drums on the skid, and a couple days later, they were gone. Hindsight is always 20-20. After Doug had that accident, it was less than a month that they filled them up with the bulldozer. After the ponds were filled up, he (Collins) was never around anymore. We used to go hunting there when I was 17 or 18. You could see where they were covered up, and you could see iron sticking up. You had to be careful, I used to tell my buddies.”

From the connection of the Collins property to Amerock, Russell could only speculate how it all occurred.

He was probably dealing straight with Amerock,” John Russell said. “He was probably the one driving the barrels, digging the holes and putting them in there. Amerock was probably paying him to get rid of them. I can distinctly remember four or five barrels on a skid, and the pond was 50 feet from the creek. There was a road across the creek about 50 feet from the bridge. There was a gate at the turn on Johnston to get in.”

Geraldine Russell noted the many barrels around the dump and behind Amerock. She would see them on her way to and from work, and when she went out back for lunch while working at the plant that made door wings, and decorative door handles for kitchens and bathrooms.

There were 50 or 60 drums in the back by the dock in the back,” she said. “I thought they were carrying it off. I didn’t know they were dumping them.”

Russell said her next-door neighbor, Bill Moore, was the maintenance man at Amerock who did some of the dumping.

He said, ‘I don’t feel right doing things I’m doing,’” she recalled. “He never would tell me where he dumped it, but he said he just got rid of it.” Moore is now deceased.

Russell said that one day she was navigating her way in the back of Amerock during the lunch break as many workers did to buy food from a local vendor. Workers had to cross over a long trench that was dug behind the building to the creek, she said.

When we would go out for lunch, we had a board we could walk across. It was a board 14 inches wide,” she said. “They had a little chuck wagon that would come along. We had to walk across to get it. The ditch they dug was like a trench. Clumsy old me, I fell in it. I fell off the board into the hole on my head. The hole was 5 or 6 feet deep, like you were going to put pipelines down.”

Russell said she was knocked unconscious and had to be pulled out by fellow workers. She made an insurance claim, and said Liberty Mutual issued her a check on behalf of Amerock.

They were mad because they had to pay me $15,000 for it,” she said. “I was such a good worker, though, they hired me back.”

Hare said the black hose went over the creek and emanated from the factory.

They had a black rubber hose that went over the creek that was held up with a couple wires holding up the poles,” Hare said. “They ran their chemicals through and filled those ponds up. You could see the black hose come above the ground all the way across from Amerock.”

The creek, only yards behind the plant, was the main source of recreation.

That’s where they’d go swimming,” Mrs. Russell said of her sons. A metal drainage tunnel still exists today that stops at the creek.

In the winter, John Russell said, kids could skate from Page Park past Central Avenue, except for the area around the drainage tunnel. That never froze over, he said.

That drainage tunnel coming from Amerock down to the creek was constantly flowing with white foam,” Benjamin said. “We’d go down there and swim and wipe our feet under it. My dad, uncle and I would go down there and catch bullfrogs for catfishin’. But you won’t find nothing moving in there today, except the birds in the trees. No more bullfrogs.”

Hare said the creek was nearly 5 feet deep then, and they would get plenty dirty.

White foam used to come out of that tunnel,” he said. “It was like a shower. We’d stand in the white foam and rinse off and scrub our heads, and then go up and put our clothes back on so our parents wouldn’t know we were swimming down there. The (creek) water was almost my height. We used to take the water in our mouth and squirt people. We were so stupid. We dug a slide out and used to slide into the water. It would burn your skin and put rashes on you. My mother would ask, ‘Where are you getting these rashes from?’”

Bryan Redington, now 55, remembers taking dips in the late 1960s. Although he lived south of Auburn on Shelly Drive, he now has sores on his legs like the others.

Swimming in the creek was refreshing on a hot summer day,” he recalled. “But I remember seeing a good amount of dead fish around.”

Benjamin also said there were countless days swimming in the creek in the summer.

There were suds this high,” Benjamin said, describing the toxins that came from the drainage tunnel that still remains. Back then, “It was constantly pouring and out. The suds would disperse into the water and get smaller and smaller away from the drainage tunnel.

We were just kids,” Benjamin said. “We didn’t know any better.”

Postscript: Part two of this series will focus on how toxins in the well water have contributed to health problems suffered by residents in the neighborhood. Part three will look at working conditions at the Amerock plant into the 1980s. Past Amerock employees are urged to contact the The Rock River Times by e-mail to contact@rockrivertimes.com to offer any testimony to add to the information already gathered from employees spanning the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Residents who have suffered serious health maladies living there the last 30 years also are asked to contact TRRT.

From the Sept. 7-13, 2011, issue

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