By Richard S. Gubbe
On a Sunday in the late 1970s, Mike Molander was performing his assigned duties as a pollution control technician at the Amerock Corporation when he said he witnessed the suspicious pouring of highly toxic materials into an old farmer’s well located at the facility.
The old well head, from a farm that was used on the land before Amerock purchased the property, was where construction was under way for a new addition to the massive plant on Auburn Street, Molander said. The 10-year employee said he witnessed a curious, unexplainable siphoning of nickel and hexavalent chromium liquid from containers into the well head by three employees.
Molander’s job at the time was to collect water samples from around the hardware manufacturing plant for testing, then he was to report the results to the federally-run Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“It was a holiday when nobody was around,” Molander told The Rock River Times in an exclusive interview. “I didn’t know anyone else was in the building. I was walking around while going on my route. The company was building the new tool room with a climate-controlled environment.”
Molander said the expansion featured wall and ceiling construction, but the floor was not yet finished, and the well head was still accessible.
“I heard voices coming from the north end,” Molander said. “I looked over, and here was [sic] these three guys with a container that was used to put chromium and nickel in, about 25 to 30 gallons. Those containers held very, very toxic waste. They had a lot of that stuff lying around. They had one of those containers with a hose on top, siphoning the fluids from the drum. There was no reason to put fluids into the well head.”
Molander identified two of the three men as maintenance foreman Rollie Lindquist and maintenance lead man John Dahle.
Molander, who possesses a certificate of competency from the EPA to allow him to perform this type of work in a professional manner, has been a whistleblower no one would hear until now. He said during his time at Amerock in his pollution control job, Amerock never had negative citations from the EPA or the Rockford Sanitary Department regarding polluting.
“As part of my job, I had to do Federal Registry testing,” Molander said. “I had to do a week’s worth of samples from all over the building, test them and incubate them in a refrigerator. I recorded results and did analysis, then filled out a form for my supervisor. It took 21 days to do the testing process, seven days of collecting, seven for incubation and seven for final analysis. The tests were to determine the quality of effluent (waste water) BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) and COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand). COD tells you basically how much oxygen the chemicals are seeking from the water.”
Water that came from the plating lines and other machines was monitored by Amerock and the EPA beginning in the mid-1970s, Molander said, when new EPA guidelines came out for waste water put into the city sanitation system.
After seeing the siphoning of chemicals from the drums into the well head, Molander took his observations to his boss, Roger Julin, who was in charge of all laboratory, pollution control and chemical research activities.
“Monday, I went and told my boss, Roger Julin,” Molander said. “He said he thought that was unusual. He told me he would look into it and get back to me. A couple days later, I asked him for information. He said he talked to the proper people and that everything was under control and not to worry about it. That, to me, was really strange. It never went anywhere.”
Dissatisfied with the answer he received, Molander said he called the City of Rockford Sanitary District a week later.
“I called the Compliance Department,” Molander said. “I had been down there on a few occasions as part of my job. I left messages, but they never responded back.”
Molander said he left a message for the department supervisor, Violet Chen.
“No one ever got back to me,” he said. “Her husband was in charge of the Rockford EPA at the time. I told them the same thing. I mentioned I had talked to the Sanitary Department to see if I had the right department. They never got back to me. It never went anywhere.”
Amerock was owned and operated by the Aldeen family through the 1960s when it was bought out by Stanley Works, one of the country’s leading tool manufacturers. In November 1974, Lancaster, Ohio-based Anchor-Hocking Corp., a manufacturer of kitchenware with sales of $367 million, announced it had acquired Amerock for $32 million. The change in ownership became effective in October of 1975, after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Canadian government approved the acquisition. Anchor-Hocking owned the company until July 1987, when Freeport-based Newell Co. (which eventually became Newell Rubbermaid Inc.) acquired Amerock from Anchor Hocking Corp. for $340 million.
Before Molander left the company, he recalled two other incidents of a suspicious nature. They both involved sealing the same type of drums of chromium and nickel into cinderblock walls in two different areas of the plant.
Molander said the incidents of covertly placing drums of approximately 25 to 30 gallons stacked on top of each other was then surrounded by new construction and also was done on Sundays when few, if any, employees were there.
“They did that on their own without the union involved,” Molander said. “I just had to look at the cap to know what was in the drums. I asked one of the guys, and they said until they had a better way to dispose of it, they were keeping it there.”
Molander disclosed to TRRT the two locations within the building that walls were constructed to hold the drums of nickel and chromium. Hexavalent chromium is used for the production of stainless steel, textile dyes and as anti-corrosion and conversion coatings, as well as a variety of other uses. Nickel also is used in the plating process. Amerock was the largest producer of cabinet hardware in the nation at that time.
“The barrels were stacked up higher than my head,” he said. “Afterward, there was a brand-new paint job. Lindquist was there that day. He was right there checking on it. Rollie Lindquist was always close to the action. Soon after, I left Amerock.”
Even though he never worked in the chemical industry again for fear of being exposed to more toxic chemicals, Molander didn’t give up on trying to get his secret out.
“After they closed the City of Rockford well at Central and Preston Street in the 1980s, I called the EPA then again and got absolutely nowhere,” he said.
Newell sold the plant on Auburn Street last December to a company that specializes in cleaning up and restoring industrial properties. Denovo Properties, with offices in Chicago and Indianapolis, paid $2 million for the plant.
“I called them and said, ‘If you want me to come out there, I can show you where the barrels are,’” he said.
Molander said the voice on the other end seemed disinterested.
“He didn’t want anything to do with it,” Molander said.
Numerous telephone calls to Denovo Properties by TRRT were not returned.
From the Oct. 5-11, 2011, issue