Tony Ross' bat connected, sending the softball rocketing to the fence. While the outfielders scrambled after what should have been a home run, Ross stopped at second, doubled over and gasped for breath. Then he sat down on the base.
The two teams playing were made up of machinists, custodians and guards from the late shift at the Bannister Federal Complex in south Kansas City. They had met, as usual, around midnight on the baseball diamond at the nearby Hickman Mills High School to play until four or five in the morning.
Ross was about 50 years old then. He's 65 now, retired, and suffering from chronic bronchitis and asbestosis. He's a Vietnam veteran, and one of thousands of people who worked at the Kansas City Plant making non-nuclear components for nuclear weapons. The plant has been known as Bendix, AlliedSignal and Honeywell — the companies that have operated it under contract with the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration since 1949.
Though no nuclear components are manufactured at the Kansas City Plant, its workers are exposed to plenty of hazardous materials. The U.S. Department of Labor maintains a list of 785 toxic substances verified as having been used there.
The 60-year-old building will soon be abandoned. Honeywell is condensing its services and moving to a new, $673 million facility at Missouri Highway 150 and Botts Road. The General Services Administration, which also has offices at the Bannister Federal Complex, is pulling up its stakes, too. In June, representatives from Honeywell and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources told members of the City Council that they are proud of the cleanup that has already been done at the site, at a cost of $65 million.
But people have been abandoned, too: former workers who live with chronic pain, who struggle to breathe or who have died.
When Ross was 19 years old, he worked as a locker-room attendant at Brookridge Golf & Country Club in Overland Park. One day, a golfer at the club misplaced his wallet. When Ross found the wallet and returned it intact, the man offered Ross a tip: The Bendix plant was hiring, and he should apply.
Ross took the advice and was hired at the Kansas City Plant as a custodian in October 1964. "We made three dollars an hour, plus vacation time and benefits," he recalls.
Ross took out trash and cleaned the building and the grounds around the plant. Infrequently, and only in certain areas, supervisors ordered him to wear gloves as well as tape along the wrists and ankles of his coveralls to avoid contamination. Contamination from what, exactly, Ross never knew.
"We had meetings," Ross says, "but they didn't tell us anything about safety. They told us what was coming up next, as far as the job, stuff like that, but they didn't tell us nothing about safety. I don't think they thought about it."
He later became a general machinist, then a tool and die maker. As a skilled laborer, Ross worked in a room that was kept at a constant 56 degrees so that metals could be fabricated to exact specifications. Ross says he didn't always know what the parts were for, only that they had to be precise. He worked with metals such as copper, gold, steel, aluminum and beryllium. The latter is an element that, when combined with another metal to form an alloy, is vital to the space program as well as to the manufacture of weapons because of its lightness and ability to withstand high temperatures.
Beryllium is a carcinogen whose harmful properties were first reported in the early 1940s. Its dust is particularly corrosive to the lungs. Medical experts say there is no safe level of beryllium exposure.