Alba Craft: Oxford’s uranium-laced history

The Robinson sisters played in the water that shimmered and shined as it moved through the gravel and grass on its path down west Rose Avenue and onto south Main Street. Carol Robinson, the self-proclaimed mud pie queen, splashed in the rivulets that trickled off the roof and around the massive industrial facility next door to the Robinson’s home. She paid little attention to the bustling sounds of workers coming in and out of the concrete complex.

The girls, all six of them, made an innocent hideout among the raspberry bushes that grew in their neighbor’s yard and on the building outside the perimeter of their own yard, often plucking and eating the wild fruit right off the vine.

That was seven decades ago. The Robinson sisters — Terry, Gail, Carol, Kelley, Peggy and Amy — didn’t know it then, but the center for processing radioactive uranium in Oxford, Ohio was directly behind their backyard.

The Alba Craft Laboratory, Inc.

From 1952 to 1959, former Miami professor and Oxford resident Eugene Albaugh owned and operated Alba Craft Laboratory, Inc. on 10-14 Rose Avenue.

Albaugh was subcontracted to manage Alba Craft by National Lead of Ohio, a company that controlled Fernald, which was a uranium processing facility for the Atomic Energy Commission until it closed in 1989.

But it wasn’t until March of 1993 that Daryl Kimball, who worked for the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), a Washington D.C. group that informs the public on health risks of nuclear weapons-related activities, discovered by chance that his hometown, Oxford, had been added to the Department of Energy (DOE)’s Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP).

“It was a long time ago, but I remember it quite well,” Kimball said. “I was working for PSR, leading a research project about the nuclear complex industry. I was speaking with a DOE official at Oak Ridge who was ticking off the locations of FUSRAP sites throughout the nation and when I heard Oxford, I went, ‘Wait, back up, please.’”

That same Friday afternoon, Kimball told his mother, Linda Musmeci-Kimball, co-founder of Oxford Citizens for Peace and Justice (OCPJ) and director of the Peace Center in Oxford, about what the DOE had been hiding from the public.

Musmeci-Kimball was shocked to learn that Alba Craft, which in 1993 had been an embroidery shop, used to process uranium for the government during the nuclear arms race.

When her son called, Musmeci-Kimball was in the Peace Center (OCPJ office) with her two interns, Jason Gambatese and Michon Woods. And, as soon as she got off the phone she immediately lept into action, taking Gambatese with her and telling Woods to stay behind.

“I wasn’t sure what we were going to find,” Musmeci-Kimball said. “[Woods] was in her prime childbearing years.”

Musmeci-Kimball and fellow OCPJ member Yero Peterson (who had lived on Main Street near Alba Craft during the 1950s) immediately began contacting the DOE and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They wanted the department and laboratory to release the results of the DOE’s report: “Results of the Radiological Survey at the former Alba Craft Laboratory Site Properties, Oxford, Ohio.”

“I was concerned because it was in the middle of town, two blocks away from the apartment [Village Green] where my younger sister was living while she was at Miami,” Kimball said.

In early 1992, nearly a year before Kimball’s discovery, the DOE had informed several officials on Oxford City Council, as well as the owners of Village Green and the Alba Craft building, that the building was being considered as a potential site requiring radiological cleanup within the next 15 years.

Musmeci-Kimball couldn’t believe that the DOE was willing to put Oxford on the back burner, conceivably until 2008.

“Were it not for [Daryl’s] persistent requests to the DOE for a pre-publication copy of the unclassified report on the September 1992 radiological survey, I am not sure how many more months it would have taken for the data to reach anyone in Oxford,” Musmeci-Kimball wrote in a 1994 column of The Oxford Press.

The “Significance of Findings” section of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s September 1992 report concluded that “the former Alba Craft Laboratory contains quantities of uranium that pose little health hazard if left undisturbed.”

In reality, months later the DOE manager of the clean-up, Dave Adler, admitted that the amount of contamination ranged from 10 to 100 times the radiation levels considered normal under DOE regulations, Musmeci-Kimball said.

Unfortunately, Oxford was just one small cog in the uranium machine that operated throughout Ohio and the United States during the Cold War.

The center of the ‘atomic mindset’

The Fernald Feeds Material Production Center, or simply Fernald, was the third largest nuclear waste dump in the country. Facilities around the nation would send waste to Fernald with the belief that the center would process the radioactive materials, but there was no place to put any of the waste after it was processed. Thus, it was buried in pits beneath the ground.

From 1951 to 1989, the plant produced 170,000 tons of metric uranium, most of which was conducted under secret government contracts. Many employees who worked for Fernald and its subsidiaries had no idea what their work exactly entailed.

Alba Craft was one of 83 companies that were subcontracted by National Lead of Ohio during the nearly four decades when the Fernald plant remained in operation for the Atomic Energy Commission.

Specifically, Alba Craft was one of 17 Ohio sites that worked with radioactive material and uranium metal in conjunction with Fernald from the 1950s through the 1970s. Outside of Ohio, there were 65 other sites that worked underneath the Superfund (locations categorized by the EPA as candidates for hazardous waste cleanup) site, Fernald.

While the DOE began its own record search for the cleanup that began in 1987, it was difficult to compile a list of commercial facilities that Fernald subcontracted.

“I had to base our search on old contracts and rumors from former workers and residents of these sites,” Adler said in a Hamilton Journal-News article from 1994.

In a special edition of the Oxford Daily Bugle (a newspaper produced by an English 212 public affairs reporting class in Miami’s English department on Dec. 23, 1994) a student interviewed David B. Fankhauser, a genetics expert, biology and chemistry professor from the University of Cincinnati.

Fankhauser independently surveyed the Alba Craft property and reviewed the DOE’s original report from 1993.

He was disturbed to see how his own conclusions about the level of contamination around the Alba Craft site differed from department’s initial assessment.

“[The survey] appears disingenuous and self-serving to the DOE who would be responsible for the clean up,” he said in an article from The Bugle. “At a time when our government was [supposed to be] protecting us from a threat…we were exposing ourselves to a greater real threat than the Soviet threat.”

Six years after Daryl Kimball found out that Oxford was home to a FUSRAP site, USA Today came out with a comprehensive list of private sites where companies contracted work for the government’s nuclear weapons program.

The report from Sept. 6, 2000 compiled a list of 150 sites where USA Today was able to verify the “specific nature of the contracting operations,” by analyzing data from over 300 private companies and over 100,000 pages of declassified federal records.

Twenty-four states were included in the special report. There were companies engaged in nuclear weapons work everywhere from Cranston, RI, to Granite City, IL, to La Jolla, CA. And 26 sites were identified in Ohio.

Oxford was listed underneath Ohio’s subsection, with Alba Craft Shop as the contractor.

“Machining of large quantities of uranium metal, 1952-57. Operations raised substantial amount of radioactive dust,” the report read. “Federal cleanup, removal of 2,800 cubic yards of contaminated soil and building completed in 1995…”

Alba Craft was even the catalyst for a book, Romancing the Atom: Nuclear Infatuation from the Radium Girls to Fukushima. Author Robert R. Johnson, a former Miami professor, learned of the facility’s history during his time in Oxford and featured it in two chapters of the book, which outlines the evolution of America’s “atomic mindset” in the past century.

Contamination cleanup

Starting in late March 1993, Musmeci-Kimball spearheaded the charge to inform Oxford’s city council about what her son had uncovered.

She has spent much of her adult life publicizing and condemning the U.S. government’s nuclear arms race. As the co-founder of OCPJ, she worked relentlessly to promote peace during the Cold War era.

“To realize that this entire time I was working for OCPJ protesting against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, there was a uranium machine shop hidden within the Mile Square of Oxford was shocking,” Musmeci-Kimball said.

Musmeci-Kimball and her OCPJ colleague Peterson issued a public notice for “major concern about Alba Craft”, which was read aloud at a city council meeting on March, 23 1993.

“Oxford residents are [to be] kept informed of any action that takes place at the site,” the notice read.

The notice also called on the Ohio EPA to conduct an independent assessment and asked that the city push for the DOE to execute a full and quick cleanup of the site.

While members of city council had been informed a year before that the DOE had conducted a radiological survey and ran tests, they were unaware of the scope of contamination at Alba Craft.

“In 1992, the EPA told us the site was clean,” former councilwoman and current OCPJ director of the Peace Center Janis Dutton said. “We accepted their word at face value. Unfortunately, you can’t just make up scientific decisions.”

Following the city council meeting in late March 1993, Dutton and various members of the council and city staff teamed with OCPJ to lobby late Ohio senator John Glenn’s and then congressman John Boehner’s offices.

“We took two lobbying trips to D.C. to try and get the state to fund an independent surveyor,” Dutton said. “We wanted the DOE to give Oxford a higher priority because Alba Craft was in the middle of a residential neighborhood.”

Promises were made by Glenn, Boehner and the assistant to the secretary of the DOE, Dan Reicher, to expedite the cleanup process.

One of the promises involved decontaminating the home of Marilyn and Wayne Elzey, who had unknowingly bought Eugene Albaugh (Alba Craft’s owner)’s former home.

Albaugh, who lived on South Main Street, had often traipsed through what was eventually the Elzeys’ home in work boots covered in radioactive material.

Little did Albaugh know that, over three decades later, Marilyn and Wayne would be directing DOE crews on where to remove flooring coated with uranium dust in their living room.

“We were upset that we never knew what had happened when we bought the house,” Marilyn said. “The DOE gave us the option of moving out, but we chose to stay.”

The decontamination crews came to the Elzeys’ home in October of 1993 every day for a week. They cleaned up the garage, the master bedroom, family room and pathway from the backyard through the garage.

“We ended up moving in 2000,” Marilyn said. “My husband was very angry. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1997 and was diagnosed in 2010 with pancreatic cancer and passed away. We never pursued it because you have to get on with your life. If you become obsessed with something like that, you can’t live.”

Less than a month after the DOE’s hazmat crews cleaned up the Elzeys’ former home, the DOE said it might have Alba Craft cleaned up by 1994.

It took another full year for the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), Arjun Makhijani, to speak in front of Oxford City Council on Nov. 29, 1994, and deliver his recommendations on the DOE’s cleanup progress as an independent surveyor.

“Radiation levels in the area posed some health risks,” Makhijani said at the council meeting. “DOE officials could not truthfully tell residents there is no large risk.”

Makhijani submitted his “Recommendations to the City of Oxford, Ohio regarding Alba Craft” on Jan. 10, 1995 to city manager James Collard.

He outlined various steps he believed the city should take, including following through with commitments made through Adler and the DOE and putting pressure on the DOE to “fund a dose reconstruction effort” to understand how exposure to uranium affected the former Alba Craft workers and surrounding residents.

The DOE contracted Bechtel, a construction and civil engineering company, to help clean, decontaminate and disassemble the Alba Craft Shop throughout 1995.

While notice of cleanup certification for the site was published in the Federal Register on Nov. 26, 1996, according to the DOE’s “Long-Term Surveillance and Maintenance Plan for Completed FUSRAP Sites,” the effects of Alba Craft’s uranium machine shop years still linger.

Aftermath of Alba Craft

Of the six Robinson sisters who played in the water contaminated at the Alba Craft shop, five have had thyroid cancer.

In 2004, Terry Robinson Fulton “had two partial thyroid removals and underwent radiation treatment for the thyroid cancer that spread to her liver,” according to an article in The Oxford Press from July 16 of that year.

For years, Terry had been incredibly worried about the effects the Alba Craft building and its contributions to the nuclear arms race had on her sisters, her children, and on herself.

One of her vocal cords was removed in 2004 and she was constantly waiting to see “whether cancer cells [were] forming again in her throat or liver,” according to a Hamilton News-Journal clipping.

Two years later, Terry died by suicide at the age of 54.

Kelley Robinson Hickey, who had surgery to remove one of the lobes on her thyroid gland after a tumor developed, died on March 12, 2014 at age 51.

The other four sisters, Amy Robinson Ferris, Gail Robinson Marbut, Carol Robinson McLaughlin and Peggy Robinson Feller, are alive today.

Gail moved to Garden City, KS as an adult. Her daughter, who never lived in Oxford, was also diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2004. Amy owns property in Oxford, but rents it out for student housing, and Peggy lives in Mt. Vernon, WA.

Carol, the mud pie queen, lives in Liberty, IN.

Carol suffered two bouts of initial thyroid cancer as a young child. In the 2004 article in The Oxford Press, Carol discussed how she “ha[d] three growths on a thyroid goiter and the removal entails risks of losing her ability to swallow.”

The Robinson sisters were just one tragic casualty of the four decades of inaction that passed following Alba Craft’s closure as a machine shop in 1957.

“There’s the old adage, ‘If you don’t learn and understand history, you’re bound to repeat the same mistakes,’” Daryl Kimball said.

“Our neighbors and residents have been affected by the Cold War in a profound way,” Kimball said. “They paid a price in the name of national security, and we need to honor them to make sure we don’t allow that to happen again in our lifetime.”

Kimball, along with his mother, Linda, and Janis Dutton, Marilyn Elzey and Arjun Makhijani, is adamant that remembering these events is important.

“The reason I had to discover its existence in the first place is because it was forgotten,” Kimball said. “If this generation doesn’t understand nuclear history, especially between the Fernald site and Alba Craft, we could repeat the same mistakes.”

Slow Down

2:45 a.m. on May 4

“Slow down, man,” says the kid waiting in front of me at the register.

The air is fruity and the lights are soft in the Oxford Hookah Lounge.

He blinks slowly, giving his eyelids a few moments to travel back up to an inebriated resting position. He’s wearing a short-sleeve, red and black button-up shirt with a dragon on the back. His hair is styled into a little tuft at the front.

“Just slow down,” he slurs, like I might not have heard him the first time.

*  *  *

3:00 a.m. on May 4

The lounge’s address is 15 North Beech Street, but really the building sits on an alley behind Left Field Tavern, off the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park Uptown.  

Through the front door is the head shop — polished and gleaming pipes and hookah parts are displayed for sale in glass counters.  You enter the main lounge through a doorway opposite the register in the head shop. The cinderblock walls are painted red and black, and the two-story ceiling gives space for the clubby light fixtures you find in every college bar. They draw red and blue and green beams through the haze that has accumulated from the evening’s exhalation of flavored tobacco smoke.

Thirteen people are crowded around the largest table in the room. They pack a couch and a handful of padded stools and chairs, all drawn close to the four hookahs set up on the table. One of the guys, with blond hair, leans back and spreads his arms wide over the top of the sofa.

A case of Natty rests on the floor, alongside a lone empty beer can and an open bag of Doritos. A dozen more cans occupy the tabletop territory left unclaimed by the smoking rigs. The brunette sitting next to the blond guy takes her mouth off the hose, locks her lips around what looks like a bubble wand for 20-somethings, and blows a wobbling smoke bubble.

The squirrely orb rises up to join one or two others of its ilk floating in the air. Each is the subject of a communal hot potato game, as people sitting around the table wave their hands and blow at the bubbles, propelling them from one laughing friend to the next.

The brunette flaps her hand wildly beneath her tentative creation. It lingers, corporeal, for a few seconds before it bursts, releasing a cloud of smoke above her head.

The blond guy cocks an eyebrow and wrinkles his nose. Clearly, he’s seen better bubbles.

*  *  *

1:10 a.m. on May 13

Amid the din of laughs, smoke curls and top-40 playlists that fill the air, a couple sit on a couch by themselves. A. They are older than the students in the room, but not yet middle-aged. Between hits from a hookah, they sip Turkish coffee, tipping back demitasses of the unfiltered brew toward weathered cheeks. He wears a faded Ed Hardy-esque sweatshirt.

They were smiling earlier. Now, they look straight ahead at nothing as they puff.

He talks for a little while without changing his gaze and then pauses before talking again. She rests her head in her hand and her elbow on the couch. He puts two fingers to his head and runs them over his eyebrows, smoothing them out. She fixes her hair. He talks again and receives no response.

They leave after a while. Their eyes are glazed.

*  *  *

About 3:10 a.m. on May 4

One of the girls from the big group stands up from her stool, getting ready to leave.

“Sam!” calls a slim guy in a grey sweatshirt at a neighboring table. He was curled up comfortably in the corner of a couch, but he leans forward a little bit and his eyes open wider at the sight of her.

“You heading out?”

Her jeans have wide, intentional holes down their length and run tight from the top of her thighs down to her ankles. From the front, they barely qualify as pants.

She cocks her hip, accentuating her curves, and, with a smile, yells back something mostly indistinct but for, “Of course I am.” She then spins around to leave.

The slim kid leans back into the cushions. His eyes follow her out. He puts his hand up to his forehead and pushes his hair up and back, holding it tight for a beat. He lets go and exhales. His eyes drift to the ceiling.

One of his buddies says something that pulls him back, and his gaze shifts to the floor as he cracks a crooked smile.

A few minutes later, he pops his hood up and pulls his hookah hose tight against his chest. He’ll nurse it until he leaves.

*  *  *

1:45 a.m. on May 13

A trio walks in and settles around the table in the front of the lounge. A tall guy in a bright red polo takes a stool and his friend, wearing a sweater that falls somewhere between beige and heather grey, plops into the couch opposite him. They’re both smiling.

The lone girl in the group climbs onto the couch and sits cross-legged, scooching into the corner. Her hair is bedhead-frizzy and she’s swimming in a Miami crewneck and thick cotton sweatpants. Her face is blank; she’s absorbed in the phone cradled in her lap.

A hookah arrives at the table. The guys smoke and laugh. The one in the vaguely-taupe sweater spreads out his legs a little wider on the couch. They smoke and laugh some more.

The sweater guy lays his right arm in the empty space in the middle of the couch between himself and the girl. The girl keeps playing with her phone.

The guy in the polo leaves to go to the bathroom and the sweater guy starts talking to the girl. She responds with a word or two, keeping her eyes down but for a brief glance at the ceiling.

He moves his arm an inch closer to her, in the deliberately casual way boys try to slip an arm around a date at the movies. He keeps trying to talk to her. She tucks her legs underneath herself and points her knees away from him.

The guy in the polo comes back and the guy in the sweater smiles, immediately turning his attention back to the one person at the table interested in talking to him.

The girl brings her head up to steal a glance at the sweater guy when he isn’t looking.

*  *  *

3:35 a.m. on May 4

A pair of jingle bells tied to the shop door clink as new patrons walk in at 3:30 in the morning on a school night.

Amad Megatheh, the youngest of the three brothers who own and operate the Oxford Hookah Lounge, walks over to check on the slim guy’s group in the corner. He’s wearing dark jeans, with a clean beard and styled hair.

He puts his hand on the shoulder of one the guys in the group and makes a remark that elicits laughs all around. He swaps out the sooted coals in their hookah for glowing ones, pivots easily to grab their trash off the floor, then glides to the back room to drop it off.

Amad comes back and settles into a vacated stool at the large table. He says something to the dragon-shirt guy, then turns and talks to the girl on his left. She brushes back her hair, smiles and laughs.

*  *  *

4:00 a.m. on May 4

The music drops a few notches. Usually, the lounge closes at 2 a.m. on Thursdays, but Moe, the middle Megatheh brother, says if people are coming in, they’ll keep the lights on. But, by now, the post-bar crowd of 50 has shrunk to less than a dozen.

The group dwindles to a few stragglers after a couple stumbles out, almost colliding with the wall as they do.  Another exodus is led by a guy in a black ballcap who promises to a hockey teammate at another table, “I’ll be bringing my A-game tomorrow.”

Amad stands up from his stool and begins straightening up chairs and wiping down surfaces.

With yawns cascading around the room, the blond guy — the one from the group blowing bubbles — stands up, tilts back his head, and polishes off a can of beer. He walks, a bit dazed, out the jingling door and into the drizzling night.