Jobs sapped health, ex-tire workers say

Kelly-Springfield: Men who labored in the Cumberland tire plant hope to resurrect a suit blaming the company for cancer and heart problems.

June 07, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND - Three days out of high school, LeRoy Gross felt lucky to find work at the Kelly-Springfield tire plant here. "The Kelly," as it was called, offered some of the best-paying jobs to be had in this impoverished, mountainous region.

That was 43 years ago.

Now, as he battles a recurrence of the lymphoma that nearly killed him in 1992, the 61-year-old former pipe fitter wonders what kind of luck it was to spend 30 years working in a factory he fears planted the cancerous monster in his body.

"They treated me good," Gross says as he pays medical bills at his kitchen table.

His retiree's health insurance has covered most of his treatment costs to date, he notes, but adds, "There ain't nothing worth your life."

Many people around here still harbor fond memories of Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. For more than six decades, the company employed thousands of local residents producing millions of bias-ply tires at its factory on the Potomac River.

The plant closed in 1987, putting 1,000 people out of work and leaving a hole in Allegany County's economy that has yet to be filled.

Gross and some other former Kelly workers don't mourn the plant's demise. It was unbelievably hot, dirty, dangerous work, they say, conducted amid clouds of choking dust and chemical fumes that could take your breath away.

Sixty-six of them have filed suit in federal court in Baltimore over the past decade, contending that their health was damaged by exposure to hazardous chemicals used in the factory.

The lawsuits ask that Kelly's corporate parent, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., be held liable for the impaired breathing, heart disease and cancers that have robbed them of their health - and in some cases killed them. Thirty-one of the plaintiffs are dead now.

The workers' claims have yet to be tried, and might never be. The lawsuits languished for years before being dismissed by a U.S. district judge in 1997.

They were reinstated on appeal, but another federal judge threw them out again last year, ruling there was insufficient evidence the chemicals used at the factory caused the illnesses.

The men are making another, perhaps final, attempt today to get their day in court. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond is scheduled to hear arguments on their appeal of the latest dismissal.

The workers contend, among other things, that their case has been handicapped by being unable to find out all the chemicals they worked with.

In a related case, the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office fined Kelly-Springfield $67,500 last year for failure to disclose the hazardous materials it used before the plant closed.

Goodyear maintains it is blameless for the illnesses, citing a 1987 lawsuit by another group of Kelly workers that also was dismissed.

"We were convinced and are convinced that the company was not liable, and that there was no basis for the claims," says James Archibald, a lawyer for Goodyear.

The company did settle with 34 Kelly workers who sued before the tire plant closed, claiming they had been harmed by their working conditions. They reportedly got $10 million to $15 million, though the settlement was confidential.

The plant always complied with government regulations limiting exposure to hazardous materials, Archibald says.

He argues that the workers had no greater rates of cancer or other illnesses than did people who never set foot in a tire factory. The plant was safe, he concludes.

The official record is not so clear.

Dozens of studies dating to the 1970s found higher than normal deaths among workers in the tire and rubber industry from bladder, stomach and lung cancer and from leukemia. Respiratory ailments, reproductive problems, skin rashes and various injuries also occurred more often than among the general public.

"This isn't one of the industries that has ever come out squeaky clean," says Genevieve Matanoski, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

But research has rarely linked the deaths or illnesses to a single substance used in the industry, she adds, because "the chemicals change so often, and the jobs change."

A 1979 survey by the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health measured one potentially cancer-causing chemical in Kelly's Cumberland factory at levels 10 times those found in any other American rubber plant. The compound, a member of the nitrosamine family, was used in making truck tires and had caused cancer in laboratory rats.

The government review did not find any more cancer deaths than normal among those Kelly workers most exposed to nitrosamine. But it found unusually high rates of heart disease and lymphatic cancer deaths among all the former Kelly employees it studied. It made no attempt to identify a cause.

"Those excesses may be due to occupational exposures," the report concluded, "but a chance occurrence cannot be ruled out."

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