Workers Sue City for Asbestos and Mercury Exposure

Tuesday, February 10, 2015, 5:33 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger and Ann Nichols

Image: The Wastewater Treatment Plant, courtesy City of East Lansing

On a tip, ELi has learned that a lawsuit has been filed against the City of East Lansing by nine employees who have worked at the City’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. The workers’ Complaint alleges that workers at the plant “were intentionally and unnecessarily exposed to mercury and asbestos.” (We obtained a copy of the Complaint from the Court, and you can read it here.)

The concern over mercury exposure dates to an accidental spill of mercury in November 2013 at the Wastewater Treatment Plant. The mercury spill was improperly handled, and also not reported to the appropriate authorities until March of 2014.

At that time, the Ingham County Health Department conducted an investigation. ELi has today obtained through FOIA a copy of the Health Department’s report that describes the spill and improper cleanup. According to the Ingham County Health Department:

“There was no official cleanup. Supervisor used 2 different vacuums to vacuum up liquid mercury. The mercury spill occurred when the modometer was pulled off a monitoring machine/equipment in the maintenance room of the [Wastewater Treatment Plant]. The liquid mercury scattered (1-1.5 lbs) some was disposed of down the sink, some went down the floor drain, yet more was dumped into dumpsters.”

The Health Department report goes on to say that “Over the past few months there have been 2 employees very ill and Dr’s do not know what is causing yellowing skin, loss of weight, weakness.”

The nine workers suing the City are represented by attorney Neal Wilensky of Lansing. Although the Complaint does not specify the level of monetary damages sought by the plaintiffs, in response to a call from ELi today, Wilensky told us he is hoping for “significant damages” for his clients.

According to the suit filed by Wilensky, the City “recklessly disregarded the health and safety of workers and disregarded government regulations as to the reporting of the mercury exposure and the required and necessary clean up of mercury.”

Both mercury and asbestos exposure can result in serious health harm—even leading in some cases to death. According to Wilensky, some of the workers “we believe have had some [negative health] effects from the mercury exposure.” Because significant harm from asbestos can take years to manifest in a fashion that is diagnosable, Wilensky says “it is way too early to say” whether the workers have been harmed by asbestos exposure.

Wilensky tells ELi that “there’s documentation for everything that’s in that Complaint” to the Court, including a supposed failure on the part of the City to abate asbestos in a timely fashion. The Complaint alleges that a 2007 inspection by FiberTec (a hired consultant) found asbestos that required abatement, but that the City did not deal with the issue until 2014—seven years later.

According to the court-filed Complaint, the City “intentionally and with malice exposed [the nine workers suing] and other Waste Water Treatment Plant workers to large quantities of asbestos between February of 2007 and January 31, 2014,” because the City “totally ignored” the 2007 FiberTec report “for just short of seven years” (emphasis in original text).

The Complaint refers to “asbestos falling from steam pipes in various locations in the [water] Treatment Plant,” and indicates that on January 2 of this year, the City “announced there was more than 1,300 additional linear feet of asbestos found that the city was now contracted to have removed by FiberTec.”

ELi reported in its Council Capsule that at the January 6, 2015, meeting of Council, the new Director of Public Works, Scott House, asked Council to immediately approve a $90,000 contract with FiberTec to remove asbestos in steam tunnels. As we reported, “House told Council that there is asbestos insulation in the steam tunnels and it is difficult and dangerous to keep doing repairs with the asbestos there.”

The workers’ Complaint further alleges that wastewater treatment plant supervisor Wayne Beede “told the employees to keep quiet” about hazardous exposures “or they would lose their jobs.”

The Lansing State Journal reported last November that Beede voluntarily resigned his City job in exchange for $26,450 and an agreement not to sue the City of East Lansing. According to the LSJ, Beede’s resignation occurred in relation to the mishandled mercury spill at the plant. Beede is not one of the people suing the City.

After we obtained the Complaint yesterday, we sent City Manager George Lahanas several questions about the lawsuit. This afternoon Lahanas responded, “The case has been turned over to Counsel and is pending litigation, [so] it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time.”

 

UPDATE: February 11, 9:05 am: Beede's position with the City of East Lansing was corrected.

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