WILLOUGHBY, Ohio—During its heyday, Ohio Rubber Co. manufactured a variety of rubber products, including gaskets used in sump pumps and caskets.
But rubber wasn't the only compound manufactured on the site.
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Chemical Warfare Service leased the property for six months in 1918—then the Ben Hur Automobile Factory—to produce lewisite, a chemical agent used in warfare.
Now the Army Corps of Engineers is seeking information concerning the former Ohio Rubber Co. site that could help the organization clean up the grounds if they are found to be contaminated. The Army Corps has taken out advertisements in several Northeast Ohio publications, asking that anyone who might have information about the site contact the department.
The project is part of the Department of Defense's Munitions Response Site Prioritization Protocol, a national program in which the Army Corps initiates a detailed and sometimes lengthy process to test a site for contamination.
If contamination is found, it is the Army Corps' responsibility to make the site environmentally safe. The program is similar to the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program, in which areas with hazardous waste are identified for cleanup.
Ohio Rubber Co. operated from the 1920s until the early 1990s.
An official with the Army Corps stressed that the Corps does not know whether any contamination exists at the former Ohio Rubber site, located on more than 50 acres just east of Cleveland.
"We only know that the Army was there and used this property (to make the chemical), and that the potential exists for contamination to be there," said Carla Heck, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
For the process to continue, the current owner of the property, the DeMilta Iron & Metal Co., would have to permit the Army Corps to test the property. According to its website, DeMilta Iron and Metal is an industrial scrap metal processing and management company that services manufacturing facilities, metalworking/service centers, demolition/infrastructures and facility maintenance.
Carl Robison worked for 13 years in the maintenance department at Ohio Rubber. He remembers coworkers sharing tales about the history of the factory.
"They used to talk about how they once made poison chemicals for the First World War," said the 56-year-old Robison, who lives in Painesville, Ohio. "They used to talk about how they presumably found tanks of mustard gas in the elevator shafts when installing heat."
According to the Center for Disease Control, lewisite is an oily, colorless liquid that causes blistering of skin on contact. It contains arsenic and smells like geraniums. The chemical was produced too late to be used in World War I.
Lewisite was first developed by Fr. Julius Nieuwland, one of the most famous scientists in rubber industry history.
He and DuPont researchers developed the first commercialized syn¬thetic rubber, polychloroprene, in 1930, called DuPrene when marketed by DuPont. The company later renamed the rubber neoprene.
Nieuwland synthesized lewisite in 1904 and had to be hospitalized for several days after exposure to the chemical, according to historical sources.
"At first, I thought (those stories) were a bunch of baloney, just war stories," Robison said. "Then I saw (the Army Corps) notice. Everything clicked together."
The Army Corps of Engineers has been investigating similar properties across the country since a law was enacted in 1986. "Numerous cases have been investigated and closed. If the Army (Corps) finds any contamination that it caused, we will take measures to clean it up," Heck said.
The Army Corps, she said, is responsible only for contamination it might have caused, not contamination found from another property owner.
Robison said the buildings that he was told once housed the chemical have been torn down.
"I still have nightmares about that place," Robison said of his time at Ohio Rubber. "We had some great times there … and not-so-great times."