I hadn’t heard from Melvin Wade in a while and stopped by his home a few weeks ago where his significant other told me of his fatal heart attack a few months back. I was hoping to talk to Melvin about the article in the Delaware County Daily Times on May 6 titled ‘Honoring fallen law enforcement heroes including those from Wade dump site,’ which recapped the 24th Annual Day of Remembrance at Rose Tree Park honoring the 43 police law enforcement who gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect the residents of Delaware County.

This year’s remembrance included a couple police officers who a judicial authority determined that their illnesses were related to the Wade Dump Site and their subsequent deaths were ruled line of duty deaths. In the article we learned that 39 others got sick and died at the Wade Dump Site over 20- years but there’s no records to be found of which officers were working on that particular day or what their assignments were which prohibits them from being recognized with fallen Chester City officer Lawrence J. Fiorelli and Cpl. Thomas O. Pilkington who were both at the horrific Eastern Rubber Reclaiming Co. blaze, known as the Wade Dump fire, under the Commodore Barry Bridge on Feb. 2, 1978.

Thomas Worrilow, past president of the Delaware County Law Enforcement Memorial Foundation was a corporal with Chester City police that day and he recalled going to the blaze to assist. He remarks that there were thousands of barrels of toxic liquids illegally stored in the tire dump. Two hundred first responders arrived that day, but no one told them of the danger that was in the building and what might be under the ground. He adds that, 

“This was unknown to the first responders. But more than a dozen state, federal and city officials were aware of this toxic disposal site.” He also states, ten months before, federal investigators had discovered 20,000 barrels and 20 tank trucks hidden with chemicals and solvents.

There’s no disputing the fact that Melvin Wade will forever go down as the evil villain deserving all the blame for the harm caused to the first responders that night in 1978. Now that he’s dead, let’s just take a short moment to remember three others who also share in the blame.

In the 13-years I’ve followed this story, the same three inconsistencies are related to the following statements…

  • Thousands of barrels of toxic liquids illegally stored in the tire dump
  • More than a dozen state, federal and city officials were aware of this toxic disposal site but no one told the firemen. 
  • Ten months before, federal investigators had discovered 20,000 barrels and 20 tank trucks hidden with chemicals and solvents.

Blame #1 – Everyone who refuses to believe there was nothing illegal about storing drums of toxic waste on industrial sites.

No one argues that there were thousands of barrels of industrial liquid waste stored at Wade’s factory, but there was nothing illegal about storing industrial liquid waste. Dumping the liquid waste was illegal if it polluted the river but the EPA didn’t find evidence to press charges. The soil was definitely contaminated but so was most of the soil on Chester’s industrial riverfront. That wasn’t a crime either. It also wasn’t a crime for all those companies to send all those drums of toxic waste off their property and wipe their hands clean of whatever happened to their waste wherever it landed.  

Blame #2 – City officials who forgot to tell the firefighters what was found on Wade’s property

You would think that if the city officials were aware, the word would have gotten around to the firemen. Again, we’re talking about 10s of thousands of drums. They certainly didn’t appear on Front and Flower Streets out of thin air. Neighbors constantly complained of non-stop truck traffic all times of the day and night. How could the firemen not know of the drums on Wade’s site? Wade claims he had visits from State inspectors several times a year to check the scales, elevators, and other equipment. They certainly saw the drums. When it was all said and done, an apparent lack of communication between city officials and the fire department never came up at the Wade trial. It was never worth investigating.

Blame #3 – The EPA

The EPA was aware of the 1966 Valley of the Drums case in Kentucky where 10s of thousands of drums of toxic waste piled up in the Kentucky back woods and caught fire. Why would the EPA walk away from Wade’s place and do nothing for 10-months not even considering what had happened 10-years earlier at the Valley of the Drums?

If you look up Valley of the Drums on Wikipedia, it says…

It caught the attention of state officials when some of the drums caught fire and burned for more than a week in 1966. At that time there were no laws to address the storage or containment of toxic wastes, and the site continued to be unregulated for another decade.

Another decade brings us almost to the 1978 Wade fire where there were still no laws to address storage and containment of toxic wastes.

Other Hazardous Waste History

The EPA established the Superfund in 1980 and Wade’s site wasn’t deemed totally cleaned up until 1989. That means that the 4.5 acre burned up toxic site was left to sit on the Chester riverfront for 10 whole years. No one cared if the winds may have blown contaminated dust around the neighborhood or if rain runoff flowed in Chester streets those 10-years. We hear a lot from the first responders but hardly anything from the Chester residents who lived close to the Wade site. Their situation is not unlike the Chester residents today who live close to the polluting industries on Chester’s waterfront. Who considers that a crime?

The Tribute

This year in Rose Tree Park, a long awaited memorial plaque was erected for all deceased victims of the Wade Dump, identified and unidentified. The plaque inscribes its revisionist history of first responders arriving to find thousands of illegal stored 55-gallon drums of toxic waste on fire. It does correct itself by saying ‘In the decades since the horrific event, federal legislation has been created, protocols have been established for the disposal of hazardous materials as well as safety precautions for first responders and the general public.’ 

It did indeed take decades for the feds to regulate industrial toxic waste. No longer can industry fill drums with liquid waste without first determining it’s in the right container, labeling it, creating a chain-of-custody from one place to the next, and disposing or remediating it according to strict government standards. 

In 1978, you could do what you wanted with liquid industrial waste. Wade cut a deal with a small time local guy who paid him $1.50 to take a couple dozen drums a week and got paid $2.50 to return the empties. But soon, larger trucks started bringing hundreds of drums at a time to Wade’s site dumping on his factory while he was going through bankruptcy.

Banks refused to give Wade a business loan to keep his rubber reclaiming business afloat despite millions of dollars of business assets and lifetime contracts with companies buying his rubber. Yet, the small trucker hauling toxic waste did get a bank loan to set up a depot on Wade’s property.

Wade never got paid from the ‘real’ dumpers. He was powerless to stop them. Everyone knew to bring their drums to Wade’s site. Everyone looked the other way. 

People want to believe Wade dumped the contents of all those drums on the ground or in the river which makes no sense because firemen confirm thousands of full drums were exploding before their eyes. In actuality, it should be called the Wade Industrial Waste Storage Site because he didn’t dump most of the drums he received on his site. Ironically, if he had dumped all those drums, there probably wouldn’t have been a fire.

Now that Wade is dead, he’ll always go down as the only scapegoat for this horrible tragedy, never joined by the companies that produced the toxic waste and sent thousands of drums off their premises, or the truckers who delivered it to Wade.

Even in court, they charged Wade with failure to prevent a catastrophe, nothing related to committing an environmental crime. Why? Because he didn’t commit an environmental crime (at that time). 

If you look at the Wade Dump Site story according to today’s laws, Wade looks like the worst villain in the world. But, if today’s laws were in place back in 1978, there’s a very good chance none of this would have ever occurred. You can’t move toxic waste around willy-nilly like you could back then. 

Melvin Wade, one of the most hated men in America, is now dead so you don’t have him to kick around anymore. If the Wade Dump Site story is going to continue to be told, let’s try to tell it more correctly moving forward. If nothing else, understand that having drums of liquid waste on an industrial property wasn’t illegal in 1978. Sending toxic waste from one industrial site to another industrial site wasn’t a crime either. If it were, some very big corporations would have been in very big trouble.

Thankfully, tragedies like the Wade fire, 3-Mile Island, and Love Canal finally got the government to enact the laws we live under today. It doesn’t take much research to learn that most of those laws were created in the 1980s.

Thankfully, what happened in 1978 at the Wade site is not likely to happen anywhere in America today thanks to thoughtful legislation, enforcement, and hefty fines.