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Naval shipyard managers involved in 'cover-up' of employee poisoning

The cover-up involves giving misinformation to federal regulators looking into how workers at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard were exposed to harmful chemicals.
The KING 5 Investigators expose a cover-up at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. It involves giving misinformation to federal regulators looking into how workers at the Bremerton facility were exposed to harmful chemicals. (Photo: KING)

Top Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS) safety managers gave misinformation about employee toxic exposures to investigators from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the KING 5 Investigators have found.

Inspectors from the federal agency tasked with assuring safe and healthy working conditions came to the shipyard in May of 2013. They’d received information that testing in April of 2013 inside a wastewater treatment plant at the site showed dangerous levels of a toxic gas in the breathing space of plant operators. But shipyard managers told OSHA those test results were a fluke. In a letter written to OSHA’s area director based in Bellevue, the shipyard said this had never happened before in the plant’s seven-year history.

“PSNS…is confident that its employees have not been exposed to chlorine gas levels at or near (unsafe and illegal levels) prior to (the April, 2013) incident,” wrote Michael Heesacker, the PSNS director of the Environmental, Safety and Health Office, “by direction of the Shipyard Commander.”

Heesacker went on to explain that no employees had ever reported symptoms of exposure to toxins in the plant.

“Chlorine gas has strong olfactory properties and would produce a severe physical reaction at (an unsafe) level. No such reaction has been reported by employees assigned to (the plant),” wrote Heesacker.

“(This was) worse than misleading. Absolute lies, outright lies,” said Darrick Freeman, a veteran shipyard worker who spent four years in the wastewater treatment plant prior to his retirement in 2015. "It's a cover up."

In addition to OSHA, the PSNS told KING 5 the building “is and always has been safe” and that the April 2013 high measurements of toxic chlorine gas was an outlier event.

“An event did create concerns on April 10, 2013, during a routine worksite assessment, (but) no injuries were identified and no further medical treatment was recommended,” said J.C. Mathews, PSNS Deputy Public Affairs Officer. “We believe no member of our team has been exposed to chemicals above OSHA’s permissible exposure limits at the facility.”

Documented exposures

The KING 5 Investigators have obtained internal Navy records showing there had been plenty of documented warnings of unhealthy working conditions and exposures to harmful levels of poisons prior to April of 2013.

* On February 2, 2012, an Environmental, Safety, & Health Deficiency Report (ESHDR) detailed an event where the plant was evacuated after an operator “had his breath taken away” and that “monitoring by the fire department identified high levels of chlorine adjacent to the tank and in the pit.” The ESHDR was signed by Jeff Cizek, a PSNS Hazardous Material/Air Branch manager.

* On March 4, 2012, while processing water for cyanide and metals, a plant operator and a supervisor had to evacuate when their breath was taken away. According to an internal Navy investigation, responding firefighters took air samples that measured three times what is considered “Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH)” for chlorine gas.

“It scared me, I thought I was gonna die. I couldn’t breathe. I was (choking), I couldn’t even get a breath,” said Freeman, who was the operator who ran out of the plant as fast as he could that day.

* On November 26, 2012, an OSHEDR signed by Jeff Cizek described an event where the building was evacuated due to “chemical overexposure to multiple (people).” A plant mechanic, tank chemical coordinator and a supervisor all experienced severe symptoms of chemical exposure including “asthma like symptoms such as shortness of breath and dizziness,” “burning in (the) eyes and throat,” “burning eyes and a sore throat,” and “coughing up fluid from (the) lungs” that lasted for three days. The Navy review found that the three employees “were exposed to chlorine gas above the OSHA (legal limits) and may have been exposed to hydrochloric acid above the OSHA (limits) as well.”

After the evacuation, three responders who came to test the air were exposed as well. According to internal Navy documents obtained by KING 5, the responding personnel “were exposed to chlorine gas above the OSHA permissible exposure limit.” The testers “may also have been exposed to hydrochloric acid above the OSHA (permissible limit).”

The details outlined in these documents are in stark contrast to the Navy’s statements to OSHA and to KING 5 including “there has not been any exposure above permissible levels.”

“It’s insulting to me. They’re lying about something that is affecting my health and is possibly shortening (my co-worker’s) lives. You’re damn right I’m insulted,” said Freeman.

Representatives from the Navy’s Public Affairs office told KING 5 they did not lie, misrepresent or omit pertinent information when communicating with OSHA. They denied reporter’s requests to interview Heesacker, Cezik, or any other manager.

The PSNS is the biggest shipyard on the West Coast, employing roughly 13,500 civilians who overhaul, repair and decommission ships and submarines.

The industrial processes used at the shipyard generate thousands of gallons of hazardous liquids a day. The toxins include the known carcinogen hexavalent chromium, as well as lead, mercury, PCBs, sulfur dioxide, chlorine, and cyanide.

A six-month KING 5 investigation has found that the plant built to treat the hazards was itself hazardous. Overflowing tanks, leaking pipes and chronically broken safety systems put workers in harm’s way. Workers said they complained from the day the plant opened in 2006 through the year 2013 when the Navy temporarily shut the plant down to make upgrades. But the workers said the complaints fell on deaf ears.

“I had asked repeatedly to supervisors (to run safety tests) and they just kept saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, things are safe.’ They didn’t do anything,” said Kevin Albert, a plant supervisor who is no longer working due to health problems the U.S. Department of Labor has confirmed are due to exposure in the PSNS plant.

'Routine assessment' not routine

The PSNS provided more information to OSHA to reiterate the safe nature of its plant. The top safety boss wrote that the unusual findings in April of 2013 were part of a “routine assessment” and that “past (assessments)” and “existing (safety features)” had shown that workers were kept safe.

“Based on past (tests) and (safety features) chlorine gas levels were not identified (previously) as presenting a respiratory hazard (to employees),” wrote Heesacker.

Two former supervisors, including Kevin Albert, confirm that thorough testing had not taken place for six years and that there was nothing “routine” about the April 2013 assessment. Albert said he was so concerned about his worsening health and the chronic problematic state of the plant that he went behind his supervisor’s back and ordered the tests from the Bremerton Naval Hospital.

“When they found out that I had done that, I was reprimanded in the back room. They didn’t like the outcome. They didn’t like what they found,” said Albert. “It just pisses me off (that they’re telling OSHA and KING 5 this was routine.) There was nothing routine about it. They lie through their teeth to try to make it sound like they were doing their job when they didn’t do what they were supposed to do from day one.”

Albert and four other current and former plant operators told KING that previous testing had been “pencil whipped.” Testers that came in did paper reviews that gave the facility a clean bill of health.
“They never even looked in the plant,” said Albert.

Faulty assessment declared the plant safe

KING 5 has obtained one such assessment from 2012 that appears to have been rubber-stamped. The shipyard inspector wrote that no safety upgrades were recommended for the wastewater treatment facility and that current safety systems and protocols were “adequate” to keep the workforce safe. He cited the state-of-the-art design and construction of the plant.

“The potential for exposure to various chemicals including cyanide salts and sulfuric acid is negligible as operations involve the use of closed systems,” wrote the industrial hygienist. A closed loop system means that large holding tanks for poisonous water were closed off with lids to keep dangerous vapors out of breathing spaces. “All systems are closed and there is no potential for employee (exposure). (Chemicals are added) via an (automated) chemical injection system,” he wrote. An automated system would further prevent exposure. The industrial hygienist also highlighted functioning cyanide alarms and proper ventilation systems that kept workers even safer.

The KING 5 Investigators have found none of those observations are accurate. Although the original design called for tank lids, they were never installed. There was no closed loop system. For seven years the tanks were left open, allowing potentially lethal chemical vapors to enter the breathing space of plant employees.

“The tops of the processing tanks are open allowing chlorine to escape to the breathing zone,” wrote Navy investigators in June 2013.

It is unclear how the lack of tank lids could have been missed in a thorough review of the plant that declared the building safe.
Also in contrast to what the reviewer wrote in 2012, KING 5 has found the automated chemical injection system did not work. Instead, operators added chemicals by hand, which put them in dangerous situations.

“There were chronic equipment deficiencies that required manual manipulation of the plant versus utilizing the automated features for treating cyanide,” wrote Navy investigators in 2013.

In addition, KING has found that the 2012 survey was faulty in that cyanide alarms did not work and according to the Navy’s own experts, “The installed ventilation system was not adequate to remove chlorine gas from the breathing zone.”

Despite this finding, Navy spokespeople continue to communicate to KING 5 that the ventilation systems have always been top notch.

“These ventilation systems exhausted outdoors, achieving multiple (6 - 8) complete air changes in the building every hour to protect air quality and keep exposure to chemicals below OSHA (limits),” wrote Mathews. It is unclear why public affairs specialists provided information that contradicts what top Naval officials signed off on in 2013.

More misleading statements

KING 5 has been provided with other contradictory information from Naval Public Affairs. Representatives told us lids were not originally installed because the design did not call for them.

“Building 1109 was constructed in 2006 using state-of-the-art systems which met industry standards. The plant was originally commissioned with open top tanks,” wrote Mathews.

A Navy investigation conducted in 2013 found that although “The (wastewater treatment plant) was commissioned with open top tanks, the Architecture and Engineering drawings specifies tank covers. It is unknown why no tank covers were installed.”

“During my complaints (about the plant) there was talk about putting lids on there but they never did it. There was never lids on those tanks,” said Joe Giordano, the lead operator of the facility when it opened. “They even mentioned that we need (lids) but it was going to cost a lot of money.”

Public Affairs has also said OSHA investigators “concluded there had not been any exposure above permissible levels.” But on September 20, 2013, OSHA sent a “Notice of Unsafe and Unhealthful Working Conditions” to the PSNS. OSHA investigators had found two “serious” violations, including a violation of a federal regulation requiring the employer to identify and evaluate respiratory hazards in the workplace.

“In (the treatment plant) during cyanide destruction process, chlorine gas was emitted in levels above the (federal) (Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health) level of 10 parts per million, and the employer had not evaluated this respiratory hazard and (had not) issued appropriate respiratory protection,” wrote OSHA Area Director David Baker.

'I’ll make you a believer'

Current and former plant employees interviewed by KING are most upset about the Navy’s statements that no one has become sick from exposure to toxins such as cyanide in the treatment plant.

“PSNS… has no evidence of adverse health effects resulting from work in Building 1109, and no injuries have been identified,” wrote Mathews.

A U.S. Department of Labor program to help sick federal workers has confirmed Kevin Albert has conditions such as vocal cord dysfunction and irritable larynx syndrome from exposure to poisons in the facility. He also suffers from reactive airway disease, anxiety, depression, tooth decay and memory loss that his doctors believe are related to working at the PSNS.

“Come on down. Stick your head in the tank. I’ll make a you a believer. That’ll make you a believer. You won’t be able to forget,” said Albert.

Other stories in 'Seven Years of Cyanide' series:

Bremerton shipyard workers exposed to dangerous toxins for years

Shipyard worker emaciated, near death after poison exposures

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