Failed Industrial Plants Are Now Toxic Perils : Environment: Taxpayers often must foot the bill to clean the sites. Thousands of workers were left unemployed when facilities closed.

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The landscape is a still life of rusted relics: a skeleton of a steel mill, a rotting crane, gnarled gates. The jobs are long gone, the company, too. But something else remains behind: poison.

Here, in the eerie silence of the old Wisconsin Steel Works, asbestos, benzene and cyanide have left their scars, toxic ABCs that, ironically, are reminders of the glory days when this proud mill belched and boomed. Now, 11 years after the plant closed, cleanup is under way.

It’s a bitter epilogue to a sorry saga of thousands of workers who lost their jobs, their security and their dreams and now end up paying for at least part of the multimillion-dollar cleanup because the government owns the land.


Steelmakers once were respected stewards around here, dominating this corner of the city. Now, some are seen as nothing more than slumlords who took the money and ran.

“They bled a community dry. When they were making big profits, they didn’t reinvest in the plants,” said state Rep. Clem Balanoff, whose district encompasses the mill area. “They walked away and left people with these toxic time bombs.

“All they left us with is the cost of cleanup,” the former steelworker added angrily. “I’m madder than hell.”

The situation isn’t unusual. Across the nation, especially in the industrial Midwest and Northeast, thousands of abandoned factories, steel plants, textile mills, machine shops, breweries and tanneries have created a toxic legacy that jeopardizes the health, safety and economic fate of many struggling communities.

“We’re creating a whole series of small wastelands,” said Al Wilson, president of the Ohio-based Hazardous Materials Institute Inc., which designs cleanup plans for contaminated areas. “You’re talking about thousands of jobs, people’s livelihoods. It is sad.”

“Large sections of our communities are being thrown away,” said Dan Swinney, director of the Chicago-based Midwest Center for Labor Research. “People had this illusion that if these places close, they’ll be replaced by something else. The reality is, it just hasn’t happened.”


Nationwide, there are 200,000 to 300,000 abandoned factory areas, some deteriorating for decades, Wilson said. In the past, he noted, mines or manufacturers had an 80% chance of contaminating their surroundings with such carcinogenic or hazardous materials as dioxin, petroleum, lead, asbestos and PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls.

There is evidence everywhere: an abandoned tire factory in Ohio that reeks of asbestos, a former textile mill in Vermont polluted by polyaromatic hydrocarbons, an old forging plant in New Jersey laden with PCBs.

“Everybody was worried about the pollution they were putting into the sky. Nobody thought about what they were putting into the ground,” said David Poljak, financial officer in Duquesne, Pa.

Many also were reluctant to pressure companies to curb pollution.

“The prevailing thought was, ‘Just let them alone. I’ll take my chances dying from cancer. I just don’t want to starve to death,’ ” Poljak said. “You could put up with some pollution as long as they were still here to provide jobs for everybody.”

Now, that sacrifice means little to towns left only with monuments of failure.

“They’ve lost the plant, they’ve lost the jobs and, suddenly, they’ve almost lost their identity,” said Carol Andress, senior policy analyst at the Northeast-Midwest Institute. “But you’ve still got the building. It’s a visible reminder of what went wrong.”

The employment impact can be tremendous. A University of Michigan study, for example, estimated that from 1982 to 1991, plant closings in the state will result in the loss of 163,556 jobs.


That’s just part of the domino effect. Abandoned factories create many more problems, including:

Tax loss. Plants that sit idle for years can cripple local economies. “Their tax base goes down, people start leaving . . . they get into a downward spiral,” said Ed Jeep, regional director of the Economic Development Administration in Chicago.

In Duquesne, a former steel plant that has been closed since 1984 provided 45% of the town’s real estate tax income, Poljak said.

* Safety hazards. In Chicago last year, a 10-year-old boy playing on top of a grain silo in an abandoned brewery plunged 300 feet to his death.

In Dayton, Ohio, scavengers have waded through asbestos and PCBs in an old tire plant, searching for scrap metals. In another factory in town, kids played with asbestos like snowballs.

“They don’t just sit there anymore. Many of them become occupied by drug pushers, the homeless,” said Michael Greenberg, an urban studies professor at Rutgers University, who has dubbed these buildings TOADS--Temporarily Obsolete Abandoned Derelict Sites. “People dump hazardous waste in these places. You have an abandoned factory, you come back the next day there are 500 drums there. Who knows what’s in it?”


* Redevelopment obstacles. In Detroit, a century of industrial pollution, including lead, chromium and cadmium, has been discovered in old factory sites along the riverfront. The area, key to the city’s revitalization, is being transformed into luxury apartments, offices, restaurants and parks.

“We find these higher levels of metals just about everywhere,” said Dowe Parsons of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “It’s not going to be as easy for many people to develop these properties. It’s somewhat of an intractable problem.”

Detroit, which ended the 1990-91 fiscal year with a $45-million budget deficit, has spent millions cleaning up hazardous chemicals. Dayton has committed 10 times its annual demolition budget to get rid of one tire plant.

But some costs may be excessive.

Cleaning one 200-acre steel mill, Wilson said, could cost $60 million. And his estimate for all factory areas? Up to a trillion dollars.

Experts insist that some health hazards have been exaggerated and that not every inch of dirt must be dug up to protect people. In Detroit, a marina project will have a sealed pit to prevent exposure from lead contamination.

But others say no one really knows what lurks underground.

“All we’re seeing of toxic waste is the tip of the iceberg,” said Jeep, the government administrator. “We haven’t even begun to guess how massive a problem it is. The only ones we get a look at are the ones being considered for reuse.”


Many never get that far because, under federal law, owners of land can be held responsible for cleanup even if they didn’t cause the contamination--a frightening prospect to developers and bankers.

“It’s like you buy a house knowing there’s a lawsuit and you’re going to have to pay the bill,” said industrial-waste expert Wilson. “Because the property is contaminated, no one wants to touch it.”

“The unknown makes people nervous,” said Anne Couture of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. “They have no idea if it’s a $50,000 problem or a half-million-dollar problem.”

“Why stick yourself in a black hole when there are lots of green ones open?” asked Robert Hahn, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute.

Some have learned that lesson firsthand.

Developer Oskar Brecher bought an abandoned factory in New Jersey for $3.5 million in 1981, intending to convert it into a 700-apartment condo complex. After years of work, he discovered that the building was contaminated with PCBs. Cleanup could have cost $40 million to $50 million.

He sold the building back and ended up in a legal battle.

Some blame corporate America, arguing that many companies got away scot-free, dumping pollutants, then filing for bankruptcy.


But others say big business isn’t the villain because environmental laws weren’t as stringent decades ago. “We did what we thought was right at the time,” Wilson said.

Even now, some corporations do the right thing. Akron, Ohio, officials note that B. F. Goodrich Co. cleaned an old complex that was sold and redeveloped.

There are scores of successes: old factories transformed into office complexes, condos, malls and industrial parks, many of them spurred by government initiative.

Chicago recently unveiled a $10-million low-interest loan program to help rehabilitate abandoned buildings. Pennsylvania has committed $170 million since 1989 to redevelop old industrial areas. And Michigan has allocated $45 million to a grant-loan program to do the same and will, under certain circumstances, allow investors to buy contaminated land without incurring liability.

“This is a win-win situation,” said Stanley Pruss of Michigan’s resources agency. “The purchaser wins. They get extraordinary legal protection. The community wins. . . . They get a place on the tax rolls and (are) employing people.”

Chicago’s Southeast Side is desperate for such a turnaround. By one estimate, it lost half its jobs from 1980 to 1986, many of them steel-related.


Remaining steelmakers--USX Corp. and LTV Corp.--employ a shadow of their former work forces.

Still, many folks oppose Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan to build a third city airport in the area, noting that even though it would create thousands of jobs, the proposal reinforces the perception that nothing is happening there.

“It becomes one more element in the declining community equation,” said Tom DuBois, director of the South Chicago Jobs Authority.

Some say the airport proposal also deters potential investors because the area could be leveled in the next decade.

Others say tremendous pollution--one cleanup estimate of the proposed airport site is $3.7 billion--will thwart any revival.

“It’s a terrifically located place,” Wilson said. “It’s got a work force that’s highly skilled. But if I had a corporation as a client and they suggested buying a piece of property there, I’d say, ‘Why? You might as well go 50 miles down the road.’ ”


That attitude is demoralizing to former employees of Wisconsin Steel, who engaged in a lengthy court battle for their pensions after the owner went bankrupt in 1980.

The federal Economic Development Administration took over the mill to honor guarantees on past loans. The result: Taxpayers, including former workers, foot the cleanup bill.

“They lost their jobs . . . and now the people in the community have got to figure out the solutions,” said Lynne Cunningham, director of the Southeast Chicago Development Commission. “It’s pretty painful.”

A once-vibrant community where taverns and restaurants bustled around the clock is desolate. Storefronts are shuttered. Homes have been leveled. Company parking lots, once jammed with cars, are empty.

“It’s placed on the dust heap,” Swinney said. “It’s not wrapped up neatly and packaged. It’s visibly decaying, surrounded by institutions that no longer support them.”

But many believe the area can--and should--be revived.

“There still is a viable community there,” said David Ranney, an associate urban planning professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “It’s definitely worth . . . saving. It’s sad to see it decline. One shouldn’t take the point of view that it’s lost and gone forever. I don’t believe that.”