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While The EPA Slept
Years after the agency was put in charge of contaminated Middlefield, the truth came out.
BY SARAH FENSKE

Walter Novak
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Letters published November 15, 2001

Seven years ago, scientists found a host of volatile chemicals slipping beneath the soil of a factory and into the groundwater around Middlefield. The names -- trichloroethene, tetrachloroethene, methene chloride, and dichloroethene -- meant nothing to residents. To the scientists, they meant trouble.

They can cause liver, kidney, and nerve problems, not to mention rashes and birth defects. The longer these chemicals linger in the ground, the more dangerous they get.

And yet, seven years later, the pollution is still there, in more places than anyone thought possible in 1994. Middlefield is worried. Residents still don't know how to pronounce the long, scary names, but they look at their neighbors and see neurological diseases, leukemia, and autism. Some residents say that nearly every house in town has suffered illness, from cancer to rare muscle disorders.

They wonder if their children are at risk. They wonder why, after seven years, the Ohio EPA has yet to begin cleaning up the area. And they can't help but wonder if, seven years from now, they will still be waiting.


Every morning, the hilly roads leading into Middlefield are a stream of headlights. Cars from Warren, Solon, and Ravenna carry workers along the winding asphalt to eastern Geauga County and Middlefield's factories. The biggest -- Carlisle Engineered Products, Duramax Johnson Rubber, and Kraftmaid Cabinetry -- stagger start times to keep traffic moving.

Though only 2,000 people sleep in Middlefield, 5,000 work here, creating a bustle alien to most small towns. "We have enough fast food for a town twice this size," Council President Edna Davis says dryly. "And you wouldn't believe the traffic we get. It takes me 20 minutes to drive across town."

Middlefield has historically welcomed growth. "We've always been a progressive city, and we've always accommodated industry as it came," Davis says. Kraftmaid alone has received 10 tax abatements since moving to the village in 1984.

Most villagers either work at the factories or used to work at them. Some roots go back generations: Johnson Rubber was founded in 1895. Geauga Industries was formed in 1944. In 1958, it was sold to the larger Carlisle Corporation and renamed Carlisle Engineered Products, with several factory expansions to follow.

Both companies produce rubber parts for companies like Chrysler and General Electric. The work isn't easy, but employees take pride in its rigor. "Rubber is what got this town where it is," says Al Bontraeger, a Johnson retiree who boasts of getting "blisters on top of blisters" at the plant. "That, and the Amish."

Middlefield and the surrounding township are host to the nation's third-largest Amish settlement. Horses still clip-clop down State Street, pulling slender buggies. The men sport long beards; the women, bonnets.

Visitors are sometimes startled by the contrast of picturesque barns sitting feet from factories, of buggies and semis jockeying for space on two-lane roads. In Middlefield, Amish and industry coexist: The Amish provide factories with a solid labor force, while the factories give the Amish work in an age when sidewalks and subdivisions devour the county's farmland.  NEXT


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clevescene.com | originally published: November 15, 2001

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