Three months after the KING 5 Investigators began the series, “Seven Years of Cyanide,” more Puget Sound Naval Shipyard workers have come forward to say they believe they, too, are sick from exposure to toxic chemicals at the site including chlorine gas, cyanide, and acid alkaline.
The series uncovered that for seven years, workers were exposed to the toxic agents in a wastewater treatment facility that was built without planned safety features. And many that were installed did not work.
Problems uncovered by KING 5 included pipes that routinely leaked the potentially lethal agents, faulty cyanide and chlorine gas alarms, an automated chemical injection system that didn’t operate, an inadequate ventilation system, and chemical holding tanks installed without protective lids designed to keep workers safe from chemical gasses.
Instead, technicians used dangerous workarounds to get their water processing jobs accomplished. Those included adding chemicals by hand over open tanks where they were exposed to gases and vapors. Workers reported holding their breath at the top of the tanks to try to protect themselves.
Five workers interviewed by KING 5 for the news stories reported respiratory problems.
Since the first reports aired in November, some current and former shipyard workers said they had no idea the wastewater treatment plant had been plagued with problems since it opened in 2006 to 2013, when it closed for $2 million in safety improvements. The workers said as they watched the news reports they recognized the same symptoms exhibited by the operators on TV that they were experiencing themselves.
“I seem to have the same problems,” said retired supervisor Rick Montgomery of Shelton. “My breathing is getting worse all the time. I can’t even wash the car without bending over with my hands on my knees and gasping for air.”
“I have asthma. I didn’t have it (before). My skin welts up and turns red. I was constantly getting headaches and many skin problems. I ended up in the hospital,” said another former worker.
“My health is bad. I have severe asthma. I’m in my 30s. I was a hiker. And now I can’t walk up a flight of stairs,” said another worker who is still employed by the shipyard in another capacity.
“Now I use two inhalers, a breathing machine, and medications. Several times (in the plant) my nose would start bleeding. I had to run outside into the alley to catch my breath,” said a retired wastewater treatment plant operator.
Montgomery worked at the shipyard for 40 years. When he retired in 2015, he began experiencing serious breathing difficulties but didn’t know why.
“I didn’t associate (my health problems) with the shipyard,” said Montgomery. “(I didn’t have) asthma or allergies, nothing.”
Montgomery’s wife Donna became suspicious while watching the sick workers in the news stories.
“I was just watching the news, and I ran to Rick, and I said, ‘Watch this! Look at this story. There might be a connection to why your breathing is so bad,’” said Donna.
Montgomery spent part of his career working in the shipyard’s metal plating shop, directly connected to the problematic water treatment plant. The metal plating shop produced many of the contaminated waste streams piped directly to the treatment plant -- cyanide, chrome, and acid alkaline.
The KING 5 Investigators have obtained internal Navy documents that show the metal plating shop had its own problems.
Documents show tanks in the metal plating shop overflowed and created flooding. In some circumstances, this would lead to chemicals mixing together that should never come into contact.
“We had scrubber tanks overflow. There were valve malfunctions and all that wastewater would go down into the sump area, which is what I’ll call the basement area of the shop,” said Montgomery. “As a supervisor, I had to go oversee the situation and clean up.”
Other records from 2013 revealed higher than acceptable concentrations of caustic hydrochloric acid were created in the metal plating shop due to human error. Sources said for at least a year certain tanks in the metal plating shop were not properly cleaned or inspected, which created a dangerous level of hydrogen chloride and chlorine.
“The (tank) was at a higher concentration of HCI (hydrochloric acid) due to not conducting weekly continuity readings/inspections and subsequent (cleaning) as (is) required,” wrote Navy investigators in 2013. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hydrochloric acid “is corrosive to the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes. Acute (short-term) inhalation exposure may cause eye, nose and respiratory tract irritation and inflammation and pulmonary edema in humans.”
A Navy spokesperson has issued several statements to KING 5 denying workers have developed illnesses from their work at the shipyard.
“Building 1109 (the wastewater treatment plant) was constructed in 2006 using state-of-the-art systems which met industry standards,” wrote the spokesperson. “PSNS & IMF (The Puget Sound Naval Shipyard) has no evidence of adverse health effects resulting from work in Building 1109, and no injuries have been identified.”
But the KING 5 Investigators have obtained hundreds of the Navy’s internal records admitting unsafe conditions. Their own experts concluded there were “chronic equipment failures” at the water treatment plant. “Senior management” didn’t realize the dangerous “workarounds” being used to get the job done, including processing “cyanide.” Navy investigators also found the shipyard’s safety team “failed to recognize” the potential for putting workers in harm’s way.
For years Montgomery hit the gym three times a week. He enjoyed vigorous walks, fishing, snorkeling, and hiking. Now his activities are extremely limited. He uses three inhalers a day.
“It’s scary. It concerns me. Like, is it going to get worse? Will I have to call 911? What can I do?” said Donna.
The Montgomerys said they want the shipyard to admit they had a faulty plant and that workers were in dangerous work settings without property respiratory protection.
“So many others are dealing with the same illnesses. Wouldn’t you want to admit it so it doesn’t happen to any more families?” said Donna.