They wheeze and cough uncontrollably.
Their eyes and sinuses burn. Their heads ache, and their mouths are numb from dryness. Their throats are sore.
They are short of breath, with occasional chest pains. They have stomach cramps. They feel nauseated, light-headed, dizzy, or just generally out of it for days at a time.
Many people who live or work near the Stickney Recycling construction and demolition debris landfill in North Toledo are coming forward with complaints of symptoms they’ve experienced since the landfill’s huge fire the first weekend in May, when thousands of residents as far away as Point Place were urged to stay indoors because of what officials feared was in the air.
From a scientific standpoint, there’s no data to support their claims, officials said.
A soon-to-be-released U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report will show that nothing alarming was detected in the air or in the Ottawa River during the fire, save for heavy soot in the nearby parking lot of Chrysler Group’s Toledo Assembly Complex.
“What I was really happy to see was that we didn’t have as much asbestos [picked up by air monitors] as we could have had,” said Betsy Nightingale, the EPA’s emergency response team coordinator at the fire and the report’s author. “I was personally nervous about that.”
Those federal monitors detected no asbestos, a fiber known to cause a lung cancer called mesothelioma that can be triggered by as few as one or two fibers.
Some fibers were in the air. But follow-up tests showed no evidence of any being asbestos, Ms. Nightingale said.
Eric Zgodzinski, Toledo-Lucas County health community and environmental services director, said he was nervous about asbestos getting into the air, too.
“I’m comfortable saying they probably weren’t exposed. But I can never say definitively,” he said.
Both agree sampling results have their limits as they only examine a snapshot in time and are limited in scope to certain areas.
Nobody ever knows if any of the symptoms can be attributed to the landfill’s operation, past or present.
But Debbie Zales, 61, of Majestic Drive, isn’t letting the landfill off the hook.
“This is too coincidental that so many people in this area are having the same problems,” she said.
Residents are not alone in their demand for answers.
Three public-employee union locals have been pulling records, meeting with city officials, and calling for a broader investigation, according to Steve Kowalik, Toledo regional director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 8.
The unions involved are AFSCME Locals 7 and 2058, which respectively represent city sewer-division employees and supervisors and professionals, and the Toledo Firefighters Local 92 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
“Our biggest concerns are the long-term, chronic effects of what our folks might have been breathing,” Mr. Kowalik said.
Toledo City Councilman Lindsay Webb, whose district includes North Toledo, said she is mad at the city for not being more aggressive.
“This is heart-attack serious. You can quote me on that. This is serious stuff,” Ms. Webb said.
She said smoke from the fire was so bad she wouldn’t let her children play outdoors, miles away, that weekend at her Point Place home.
Mr. Kowalik said the two AFSCME locals, which represent more than 100 employees, are collaborating with firefighters, dozens of whom fought the blaze.
Representatives from Ohio’s Public Employment Risk Reduction Program met earlier this month with city officials about the fire, he said.
“I’ve met a lot of young guys. I’ve seen the concerns on their faces. Words can’t even describe it,” Mr. Kowalik said, adding that many of his members have complained of sinus-related problems.
Will Ortyl, an employee of the city’s sewer division, is among those demanding answers. He said he has experienced headaches and stomach cramps, and wonders what he and his co-workers might have been exposed to when they “had to drive through that plume of smoke.”
But like many North Toledo residents, Mr. Ortyl has wondered what might be emanating from the site for a long time.
“We’ve been concerned for years,” Mr. Ortyl said. “It’s just not a normal odor we should be forced to smell.”
Residents claim there is a constant odor coming from the site that smells like sulfur or something rotten. They said it’s as pungent as raw sewage, but worse — and strong, depending on how the wind shifts.
Judith Lerner, a 67-year-old landfill neighbor who lives in a house on Tyler Street her family built in 1916, described the stench as “utterly obnoxious.”
“It’s aggravated my physical problems tremendously,” Ms. Lerner said. “It affects us on this block really bad. It all depends on which way the wind is blowing.”
A dozen other residents met a Blade reporter inside the Lagrange Branch library recently to describe their experiences.
Before the blaze
Like Ms. Lerner, they claim their symptoms began long before the fire, and have only gotten worse since it occurred.
“Your mouth gets dry and you get a sore throat from this crap,” said Donna Bernhard, a Block Watch leader. “It’s ridiculous. The sad thing is it’s been happening for a long time.”
Said Ms. Zales: “It goes in your nose and you can taste it.”
Stickney Recycling is listed in court documents as having four partners: Stickney West C & DD LLC, Stansley Mineral Resources, Hemisphere Ltd., and Stickney Holdings LLC.
Stickney West was identified in a recent proceeding, over objections by defense attorney Michael Cyphert, as property owner and license holder, while Stansley Mineral Resources was identified as landfill operator.
John Pasquarette, environmental manager for the Ohio EPA’s northwest district office in Bowling Green, testified in May that Hemisphere transferred title to the property to Stickney West before the state agency issued the site its most recent license in 2012.
The site’s attorneys are contesting a temporary restraining order placed on the facility by Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Linda Jennings, who did so at the request of the Ohio attorney general’s office once the landfill was engulfed in flames on May 2.
The order forbids more waste from being accepted at the facility until a long-term solution is reached.
The attorney general’s office claimed the fire likely originated two weeks earlier, and presented evidence in court it continued to smolder for days after firefighters thought it was extinguished. Tons of soil were brought in to snuff out those remnants.
The state claims the facility’s current disposal cell is filled beyond capacity, and that the site should not be allowed to reopen unless it can get assurances for the public.
Company attorneys said there is no evidence linking Stickney Recycling to the health symptoms that residents and workers say they have experienced. They said the company is losing money because of the order, thereby risking jobs.
The landfill‘s legal team has expanded to include Chris Jones, a former Ohio EPA director and former assistant state attorney general.
“It’s their intent to make this a good business,” Mr. Jones, now part of the Columbus law firm of Calfee, Halter, and Griswold LLP, said.
Stickney Recycling is the latest incarnation of a site that was used as a slaughterhouse called Home Packing Co. about a century ago.
By midcentury, it became known as the Royster site, where a fertilizer plant owned by the Royster Guano Co. was located.
The site’s previous owner, Ron Gorney, became mired in legal trouble after he uncovered a landfill cap the city had placed over the adjoining Tyler Street dump. He used the two parcels for an unlicensed junkyard along the Ottawa River that, according to health department records, once had as many as 700 abandoned vehicles. The site was declared a nuisance and deemed a priority for cleanup because of chemicals leaching into the river.
The city operated part of the Tyler Street dump from 1955 to 1968, only to take legal action against Mr. Gorney after he removed a cap the city had installed to help prevent leakage.
Its next owner, Hemisphere, described it in a fact sheet as “one of the city’s greatest environmental threats and most notorious brownfield properties,” with 75,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil, 400 barrels of hazardous materials, 250,000 scrap tires, and 50,000 railroad ties removed.
Hemisphere purchased Stickney West in 1999, with the city’s blessing, so that the site could be converted to its present use as a construction and demolition debris landfill. It began accepting waste Aug. 24, 2009, according to health department records, which also have an Oct. 25, 2012, fire documented at the site.
Toledo acquired tons of soil from Hemisphere — material from the former Gorney operation — to offset its costs for capping the city’s Dura Avenue landfill, another dump known for leaking harsh chemicals into the Ottawa River.
The deal saved Toledo about $1.2 million in clay costs for that project, according to the Hemisphere fact sheet.
There are no guarantees, but officials are hopeful the stench that permeates North Toledo will dissipate soon as the company has finished pumping out an unusually large amount of watery leachate, residue from the fire, from Stickney Recycling.
Stickney Recycling pumps out leachate whenever it rains. But the size of the blaze resulted in far more leachate than normal. It is being diverted into the city‘s sewage network to be treated at the Toledo wastewater treatment plant, said Jodi Vaughan, a health department sanitarian and inspector.
A statement issued by Mr. Jones, on behalf of Stickney West and its representatives, said any odors residents may have experienced were temporary.
“Stickney Recycling apologizes to any party, particularly local residents and businesses inconvenienced by the fire, just as any party suffering the impacts of a fire would,” the statement said. “Certainly, Stickney Recycling also has the greatest respect for all Toledo Fire Department personnel. However, the fact of the matter is that unbiased analytical data and third-party environmental professionals monitoring the situation have not identified any continuing environmental impacts resulting from the fire exceeding applicable standards.”
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.