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America Needs a Bailout from GM's Cancerous Legacy to the Environment

March 23rd 2009

Energy / Environment - Toxic Waste barrels

Near Flint, Michigan, which was once a hub of failing industrial giant General Motors, are perhaps the remains of decades of toxic waste left behind as a legacy to generations to come.
Auto plants are not the healthiest of places to work.

Factory work poses various health risks. Over the years, auto workers have had to deal with the health hazards associated with paint and welding fumes, the production and plating of die cast parts, foundry work, woodworking, asbestos insulation on deteriorating overhead pipes, cutting fluids and many other potentially serious health dangers where identifiable toxic chemicals were present and suspect. Many times, grave health issues that might come from workplace exposure have not surfaced until workers were older and retired.

Among the workers affected by such exposure to toxicity have been those employed over the years by General Motors. In Flint, Michigan, once a hub for automobile and parts manufacturing, factories that once turned out Buicks and Chevrolets, engines and other components are now shuttered or razed to the ground and their remains buried in the ground. Among these were the Ternstedt facility on the north end of Flint on Coldwater Road and served by a rail line. What was once a bustling factory along the Grand Trunk Rail Road line is now a series of vacant fields and hills dotted with small pools and scrub. Where once hundreds of autoworkers parked their cars and walked with their lunchboxes into the smoking factories, there are now a few deer and some occasional geese that roam over the fields. Beneath them lies what may be General Motors’ most toxic legacy.

Mike Bennett is the retired President of UAW Local 326 in Flint, Michigan, which represented General Motor’s Flint Ternstedt casting and plating facility. He was also the UAW Local President representing workers at GM’s Saturn facility in Springhill, Tennessee. He has years of experience and genuine concern for workers. One of his contributions to autoworkers was his steadfast fight to bring awareness to the issue of cancer in automobile production.

In a recent interview, Bennett was asked about his concern for UAW workers employed by General Motors in Flint. Said Bennett, “Ternstedt was an early auto parts company founded by the Swedish inventor Alvan K.Ternstedt who received a patent for the first practical window regulator in 1916 and later was financed by the Fisher Brothers in 1917. After the death of Mr. Ternstedt, the Fisher Body Corporation acquired the remaining stock shares. “Ternstedt Inc. became a division of Fisher Body and in 1948 became a separate GM division. The original Ternstedt factory was located at Fort Street and Livernois in Detroit and produced window regulators; door handles, locks, wheel covers and many plated trim parts for GM, Ford, Chrysler and other auto industrial manufacturers.”

A fire destroyed the original Fort Street Ternstedt plant in Detroit and at the end of the Korean War in 1952 General Motors moved the hardware manufacturing operation to Coldwater Road north of Flint into a new building intended for the manufacturing of jet engines.”

In 1969, Ternstedt division was folded back into the Fisher Body Guide division of GM, which eventually became Delphi. At its peak, the Ternstedt plant employed over 5,000 workers. I joined Ternstedt in 1964 as an apprentice pipefitter. The plant was a beehive of activity of various operations including stamping, plating, die casting, buffing and polishing, heat-treating, welding and assembly of many different auto components. I remember the first day I arrived in the plant and walked through the die casting area and you couldn’t see 50 feet ahead for the smoke and fumes from the machines.”

Regarding the incidence of cancer among Ternstedt workers, Bennett said “It was in the late 1970’s that I began to notice an unusually large number of people dying of cancer at a young age. People began to talk about it.”

In 1978, after being elected President of the Local, I began to collect death certificates of our members and began my own study of the death rate in 1980.”

Initially, the UAW was concerned about cancer issue, raised by workers. Said Bennett, “The Chairman of the Shop Committee at that time was Whitey Hale and he was very interested and supportive of collecting the information. Whitey went on to become the UAW top negotiator and raised the health issue at the National GM-UAW negotiations.”

Photographs were taken and remain on file of a mouse caught at the plant by workers, which was covered with cancerous tumors. Bennett spoke, “In 1981, I released the findings of my own epidemiological study to the public. Some UAW members in the plant had noticed rodents in the plant with large tumors protruding out of them.”

One member caught one and brought it to us. We had the mouse tested and sure enough the tumor on the mouse was cancerous. The photo was evidence that the plant environment was killing rodents and humans together.”

At the time, the local newspaper, The Flint Journal, ran multiple articles about cancer at the Ternstedt plant during the 1980s. One such piece was a story in March of 1980 headlined ‘UAW, GM put a lid on cancer study.’ The article was about the 38-page study that you ordered, which contended that cancer deaths at the Ternstedt plant were nearly twice the national average, and a leading cause of death for active and retired employees. Very abruptly, these Flint Journal articles stopped. Why did they stop, was there a cover-up of the study and if so, by whom? Why was the cancer issue taken out of hands of the local union officials initially concerned?

Asked whether he had faced opposition from higher-ups at General Motors and the UAW, Bennett responded “Once my study became public, both the UAW International Union and General Motors questioned the scientific results of my study because I was a ‘lay-man.’ The International officers didn’t want the story public and criticized me for releasing it. They assumed control of the study and discussions with GM. Eventually, they called in their own experts from the International Union safety department to review my findings."

Dr. Michael Silverstein conducted his own epidemiological study and later confirmed my findings as entirely accurate. In the meantime, my regional representatives Jerry Mills, and UAW Vice-President Irving Bluestone had informed me that the International had assumed control of the findings and would handle the media.”

Regarding Bennett’s relations with the union that he represented and the concern the rank-and-file felt over revelations about spreading cancer, he explained “Once the story broke, the light bulb went on for many people as their observations were confirmed; too many people were dying at very young ages from cancer! Once it became public, hundreds of widows and family members came to the local union looking for answers.”

These family members were desperate for answers. What happens now? Do I have any rights in this matter? Who will provide for my family and me? All questions I didn’t have answers for, except to say the International Union was now involved and handling it.”

“I remember as if it were yesterday when the young widow with three children came to me asking if she and her children could receive her husband’s pension as survivors. Her husband, whom I knew, died in his mid-40’s of lung cancer. He never smoked and only lived a few months once diagnosed. He had 27 years service and his wife only received his life insurance and the “bridging benefit” under the contract. The bridge benefit provided only two years of income and didn’t provide for her to collect as a surviving spouse at the time. How could she provide for children?”

What ever happened to her? The corporation and UAW International union ignored the responsibility for young widows like her and consequently they became casualties of neglect and indifference.”

Regarding any government oversight or inquiries into the possibility of cancer and its effects on workers and the surrounding environment, Bennett said, “Once the issue became public; the state became involved, after the fact. Air samples were taken in the plant and the data was reviewed. The state reported that there were an abnormal number of cancer deaths at the Coldwater Road plant and there were violations of clean air standards, but nothing was done other than public statements were being made.”

A cancer study conducted by the Sloan-Kettering Institute was precipitated by public concern and government inquiry. According to Bennett, the Sloan-Kettering study eventually confirmed his initial findings about cancer at the Ternstedt plant. “Once the UAW International Union got the safety department involved, General Motors got Sloan Kettering involved. In my view GM was attempting to discredit my study and was looking for expertise to counter any report I did or may come out of the International. After several years Sloan Kettering confirmed my findings. All the information I had and the Sloan Kettering study was turned over to the International Union and I suppose it’s buried in some file in the archives there.”

General Motors had similar factories elsewhere in the United States, according to Bennett. Said the former UAW official “At the time, there were seven Ternstedt sister plants and I had forwarded copies of my report to each of them. Again, the UAW International Union handled the situation and local unions at each of those plants. Often at our sub-council meeting, these local union leaders reported similar cancer rate concerns but I’m not aware of any studies being conducted or completed at any of these plants.”

The Ternstedt plant grounds borders the Beecher district of the Flint metropolitan area and was home to many blue-collar plant workers, many of them Southern whites and blacks attracted to the area by good-paying jobs. In some areas near the factory grounds, many residents drew drinking water from ground wells.

Following the closure and demolition of the plant, considerable amounts of materials were buried at the site. Said Bennett, “The area was mixed and many people had wells for drinking water. Behind the plant there were huge settling ponds where plating fluids, die cast waste water and chemicals full of toxic poisonous waste and heavy metal contaminants were pumped. The material certainly leeched into the ground. I called for health studies for the area but the state never followed up that I know of. In addition to these chemical lakes of toxic material, the plant emitted tons of toxic material from the furnaces and exhaust stacks in the plant. The prevailing winds carried that material into the homes of everyone in the area.”

Again, I know of nothing being done to see if it affected people’s lives. The plant is gone now and I understand that the huge chemical setting ponds are covered up. In my view the Coldwater Road site in Michigan’s is a Love canal all over again. This toxic material eventually will reappear somewhere and the end result will be more human and environmental harm.”

General Motors doesn’t want to take any responsibility for the mismanagement or clean up of this material, so they will ignore it.”

Currently, there are 391,000 GM hourly retirees and surviving spouses relying on health insurance, and when Ford and Chrysler are factored in, the number rises to over one million. Past UAW leaders negotiated health care benefits to protect retirees and their spouses. The contracts are legally binding and retirees are legally entitled to their health care benefits, which they paid for in lieu of wages.

We have all heard the media bash auto retirees by calling them ‘legacy costs.’ How humane is it to permanently sacrifice struggling auto retirees on a cyclical downturn because Southern legislators, who have foreign plants in their states, dislike unions? Auto retirees now face the prospect of continued cuts to their health benefits even as the cost of health care continues to rise.

Said Bennett, “A vibrant community is a healthy community. You can’t pursue happiness without good health. The United Auto Workers Union fought and sacrificed to get health care for its members and the nation. We diverted pay raises and Cost-Of-Living-Allowance (COLA) to pay for our health care. GM didn’t give it to us; we earned it and paid for it with our blood, sweat and tears.”

Now it’s a corporate ‘legacy cost’ that makes GM ‘uncompetitive,’ and the business model today doesn’t want to provide for it. Too many in Washington and on Wall Street want it buried, like the Coldwater Road toxic chemicals. The cost to the Nation will be great and the price the nation pays in human suffering and well-being will be great. Good health is a human right and should be ensured by our government and our Unions.

This issue may not be limited to just blue-collar, but white collar workers as well. It also may not be limited to just GM, but could reach out to other automakers with similar manufacturing processes? This industry can ill afford a far reaching massive cancer issue that reaches far back in time, yet given the fact that auto retirees are seeing their critically needed health care benefits put in jeopardy, they are being forced to view the big picture.

Given the horrendous cancer questions raised by Bennett, what is needed is an immediate investigation, extensive tests and a comprehensive impact study by federal and state agencies. The responsibility of these agencies would be to honestly and openly ascertain if there are health risks, and their impact on workers and on the people living near the manufacturing plants. Special attention should be directed to not only active factories but also to areas where factories have already been shuttered or leveled. It should be made absolutely impossible for these companies to negotiate away or weaken their health care obligations to retirees. This issue is too profoundly serious to ignore.

Mike Westfall is a former UAW official who can be reached at http://michaelwestfall.tripod.com/. 

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