Who knew the dust could kill: Promise of a better future poisonous for Alabama town
By Jessica Centers and Matthew Korade
Julia Golden holds a picture of her late husband, Bob Golden, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1977. Bob, a former Capco Pipe Co. Inc. employee, lived with the disease for 16 years. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Star
The years have cushioned her heart against more pain, so that all that emerges when she thinks of her husband are memories of the life they built together.
She remembers falling in love with Bob Golden, a lanky country boy, the star of his high school basketball team; the boy who cried when he was taken into the service, the first time he’d ever left her; the boy who hitchhiked home to see her on the weekends.
She remembers a man who, with his own hands, built a home for his wife and three children, who made their bed from a poplar box at her request, the same man who, despite failing health, would build a church and renovate a house for his youngest daughter.
She remembers when he got the job at Cement Asbestos Products Co., later known as Capco Pipe Co., after she’d asked if there were any openings.
She remembers, when he’d just been diagnosed with lung cancer, how he humbly asked God for a miracle so he could raise his children.
William Earl Lehr struggles to get from his easy chair to his electric scooter at his home near Ohatchee. Lehr, who unloaded boxcars and worked the batch mixer for five years at Capco, said he never saw a warning against asbestos on the bags. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
And she remembers the night she awoke to hear him yelling her name, lost inside his own house, the last night they’d ever let cancer push them to separate beds. She remembers fearing that if she fell asleep, the tumor wrapped around his aorta and lungs would take him.
But mostly, she remembers his last year, when his lungs had turned to planks of wood, so knotted with cancer, doctors couldn’t cut their way in to make any difference.
On his last trip to the hospital, she remembers how the 11th floor echoed with his coughs.
At midnight, he was still fighting. He looked up at his wife of almost 40 years.
She said, "Babe, why don’t you just close your eyes and go on with the Lord."
Then, for a moment, she weeps.
Bob Golden, a Capco supervisor, started working at the shop in 1965. Julia Golden’s oldest brother, James, helped build the plant, and all three brothers worked there.
Now James McGuffie, the shop’s union chief, and Donald McGuffie are dead from lung cancer and mesothelioma. Alford McGuffie has asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs commonly found among asbestos workers. It is often a precursor to more lethal diseases — lung cancer and mesothelioma, which attacks the lining of the chest and abdominal cavities. Her brother-in-law, Joseph Timothy Carroll, also is sick with an illness born from asbestos.
All around St. Clair County, former Capco workers tell the same story. Employees ground and sheared asbestos pipe, breathing air so thick with asbestos that the dust shaded the lights. Federal safety records back their claims.
All the while, court records later would show, their bosses knew the dust could kill them.
‘It was wasted life’
The company’s first vice president and general manager, S. Davis Weaver, told The Anniston Star recently that employees were warned adequately and that he knew of no one who had died or become sick as a result of exposure at the plant.
A former plant manager, Horace Beasley, wouldn’t comment, saying only that Capco was a chapter in his life that had closed years ago.
But for the families of the men who worked at the plant, that history is present every day.
It is the same story told in other places where asbestos was manufactured or mined. In Libby, Mont., and Durban, South Africa, generations were poisoned by the dust. The fibers quietly scar their lungs for decades before victims realize they can’t catch their breath.
Ragland’s families are among a generation of workers growing ill and dying in an epidemic of asbestos disease. Their plight has sparked hundreds of thousands of lawsuit claims, which corporations and their insurers call an asbestos-litigation crisis threatening to devastate the U.S. economy.
This year, President Bush said in his State of the Union address that reform is needed to stop the mounting number of "frivolous asbestos claims." His supporters in Congress are pushing legislation that would remove asbestos lawsuits from the nation’s courts.
What they pass will determine how sick and dying men are compensated.
In Ragland, the men who worked at Capco, and their widows and children, say they hope elected officials will realize that their lives are not frivolous, that death — not litigation — is the crisis.
The scale of the asbestos epidemic knows few comparisons, medical researchers say. From the Industrial Revolution to the 1970s, asbestos was woven into everything from insulation for warships to ceiling tiles to cigarette butts and the talc in baby powder.
The fibrous mineral is a chemical-resistant form of impure magnesium silicate. Soft, heat resistant and with a tensile strength stronger than steel, asbestos was considered by many to be a miracle substance.
By conservative estimates, asbestos has killed nearly 300,000 U.S. residents since 1980, and the numbers haven’t peaked, according to federal health officials and medical statistics. Medical journals report that as many as 5 million to 10 million people globally may die of asbestos cancer in the next 25 years, if exposures cease.
Julia Golden’s loss is buried in those numbers. Every day, the statistics move deeper into Alabama’s homes, as fathers and sons, mothers and sisters, become casualties of an industry that victims say sacrificed lives for profit and of a government that failed to protect.
"I’m angry," she said. "I try not to let it control me, but it was wasted life."
Nix, a former Capco worker, is one of several employees who meet at Krystal
in Pell City. Each Tuesday, the men, many of whom are sick or recovering
from cancer, gather together for breakfast at the restaurant. Photo: Bill
Wilson/The Anniston Star
When Cement Asbestos Products Company looked to Ragland, the working-class community saw its new industrial suitor as its economic savior. In 1963, the town of 1,166 had an abundant supply of labor and a railroad that ran by a National Cement plant downtown.
To lure the company, the town council voted unanimously that October to offer a 10-year exemption on property taxes — risky for a town with one stoplight and one police car, but valuable considering city elections were in 10 months.
Woodward Iron Company, Capco’s majority shareholder, had built a dynasty on Alabama’s mineral wealth. Woodward owned five foundries in Anniston, mines in Jefferson County and the National Cement plant in Ragland.
Over the years, Woodward was sold to Mead Corp., the paper giant, and Mead would sell its Capco shares to ASARCO, American Smelting and Refining Co. The metal producer owns mines in the United States, Peru, Australia and Mexico and has racked up more than $100 million in environmental fines and cleanup costs at Superfund sites nationwide.
Capco ordered the majority of its asbestos from an ASARCO subsidiary in Canada, Lac D’Amiante du Quebec, and a mining company in South Africa. It got cement from the plant next door in Ragland.
Soon Capco’s work force expanded to 100, and its product, "the Cadillac of water pipe," was shipped to nearly every state and overseas.
Locals called the shop’s access road "Million-dollar Avenue."
They couldn’t have known workers would die, any more than they could have known that a battle over corporate liability for those deaths would today climb as high as Washington, D.C., or that the plant’s closing in 1982 would drag Ragland’s economy down with it.
"The men over there were trying to work and make an honest living, to support their families, and they basically came here and poisoned them," said Donna Poe, wife of a worker who developed asbestosis. "That’s something that we don’t talk about at my home, because my husband has it in both of his lungs, and it’s a death sentence.
"We never know who’s going to be next."
Ragland’s workers say they didn’t know that Weaver, Capco’s first vice president and general manager, had collected articles on asbestos dangers before the plant opened, articles citing research that dated back more than 60 years.
They didn’t know a European company, before Capco’s opening, advised Weaver, "The whole world was recognizing, particularly in America, that cement asbestos or asbestos could probably cause health and cancer conditions, if not monitored … [with] proper collection equipment."
They didn’t know of the landmark Asbestos Institute of America conference in 1964 where Dr. Irving J. Selikoff of the National Academy of Sciences spelled out the end of the asbestos industry in America because of the dangers associated with it.
Capco had yet to sell a pipe.
Roy Jackson, who has the mineral dust in his lungs from his 11 years at Capco, says he remembers workers routinely dumping the dust from air filters — installed 10 years after the plant was opened — onto the floor. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
Records reveal hazards
Mohammed Saleem came on as Capco’s safety man in the late 1970s.
Earlier this month from his Ashland home, Saleem said workers were warned at safety meetings at least once a month. Pamphlets on proper handling were posted on bulletin boards, and bags were marked with clear warnings.
He said he can’t speak for conditions the 13 or so years before his hire, but when he came on, there was no question that every worker knew asbestos was dangerous.
"If you’re working in the asbestos industry, everybody knew everything," Saleem said.
Workers recount a different scene in which their lungs and skin were scoured raw by asbestos so dense in places it shook from the rafters like snow. They say they weren’t told to wear masks, and they never had protective suits.
Occupational Health and Safety Administration records support their claims. Inspectors in 1977 found the concentration of airborne asbestos one-third higher than federal law allowed.
That was after the plant upgraded its air filtration system. For 10 years, it relied on a crude filter; the first year it didn’t have anything.
Roy Jackson has the mineral dust in his lungs from 11 years at Capco. He tells of men who didn’t wear gloves as they emptied bags or cut pipe for eight hours a day. Their hands became calloused and clubbed, he said.
He tells of dust outside lying around in piles.
"It blew along the roadsides," Jackson recalled.
Perry Poe watched workers toss broken pipes and torn garbage bags of asbestos into the company landfill. Workers would take home pipe that had been culled. It still supports Ragland mailboxes and carports, and it lines the road in fences.
Jackson remembers workers routinely dumping the dust from air filters onto the floor. They were trying to maintain the filtration system installed nearly a decade after the plant opened, he said.
Poe got so much dust in his shoes, "my feet looked like they had third-degree burns."
The men who left the shop each night resembled a pack of weary snowmen.
The managers — executives in Birmingham and the people they took orders from every day — never warned them of the dangers of breathing in asbestos, workers say.
"They didn’t give a safety class," Johnny Southern, another laborer, said.
Yet, workers recall, when visitors — sometimes company executives — came to Capco, they were given protective clothing.
The only warning Sherman Phillips remembers came when the safety officer saw him puffing a Swisher Sweets cigar. The safety officer said, "them things will kill you," Phillips recalled.
William Lehr, 73, who unloaded boxcars and worked a batch mixer for five years, said he never saw a warning label on the bags.
"They didn’t tell us nothin’ about that mess’ll kill you," Lehr said.
Not only was the concentration of airborne asbestos too high, but caution labels required by OSHA were missing from bins and waste materials, records from a surprise OSHA inspection in 1977 show.
Inspectors discovered bins that were poorly sealed, cement mixers that puffed asbestos, machines lacking safety guards and accumulations throughout the shop, which workers were observed cleaning with brooms instead of the required vacuums. The plant didn’t have an adequate respirator program, employees were not provided special clothing, and asbestos levels in the plant weren’t measured at least every six months, as required, the OSHA report stated.
Outside, waste slurry drained into nearby creeks.
Capco received two citations for breaking workplace health and safety laws, and refused to pay.
In the resulting complaint, the U.S. Secretary of Labor said the conditions were bad enough to result in the "death or serious physical harm" of Capco’s employees.
Three years later, Capco paid the federal government $450 to settle the matter.
Poe watches as her husband, Perry, makes repairs to a fence at their Ragland
home. Perry, a former Capco employee, developed asbestosis from working
at the plant. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
Bob Golden was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1977, 12 years after Capco opened. He lived for another 16 — a miracle, his doctors said.
Dennis Watson worked two weeks at Capco, sweeping floors. One morning he walked down his driveway to get the mail and couldn’t walk back. He had mesothelioma, and it suffocated him from the inside out.
Richard Archer worked 12 years cutting pipe until 1976. Fifteen years later, his lungs were scarred. In another 10, he’d developed mesothelioma. He, too, is something of a medical exception. Doctors cut him open and found cancer had spread. They told him they couldn’t do anything for him. Today, two years later, he’s lucky to be alive, with the help of a new treatment.
Usually, mesothelioma kills in months. It starts when asbestos fibers stick to lung tissue like porcupine needles. Soon, the body attacks, sending forth waves of white blood cells that try to eat the fibers.
But the white blood cells can’t destroy the mineral. Their efforts cause a microscopic line of scar tissue for each fiber. If the damaged cells multiply out of control cancer is born.
Before Herbert O’Donell died of mesothelioma, his muscles swelled up, and fluid dripped through the pores of his skin like cheesecloth.
Julia Golden tells a similar story about her brother Donald.
He went to have his lungs looked at, and a technician asked him when he’d had one removed.
They pulled five liters of fluid from his lung. He was dead of mesothelioma in three months, at age 50.
In the end, he spent all his energy trying to catch his breath, just like her husband.
She survived breast cancer twice and has silicosis, a scarring of the lungs from silica dust. She believes she got it scraping the cement off her husband’s work clothes, one brush stroke at a time.
"Probably, at some point, people over here are going to start dying like flies," Donna Poe said.
The late afternoon sun pushes its rays through a dark cloud over the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Ragland. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star