A BITTER SPILL TO SWALLOW

CLEANUP CREW LEARNS OF POSSIBLE DANGER ONLY AFTER MOPPING UP A TOXIC FREEWAY ACCIDENT

A state highway maintenance crew exposed to a toxic spill last month doesn't know whom to believe and whom to blame. Twenty workers were exposed to PCBs, a known carcinogen. No one was told that the greasy freeway spill the crew mopped up on July 5 could be dangerous--until the next day.

That was after the workers had been to the scene twice and had dragged the contaminated mineral oil into their homes, wiping it across their floors and mixing it into their families' laundry.

The state and a power company whose equipment was involved in the spill believe there is little or no risk from the polychlorinated bivinyls, but the workers are scared and environmentalists are outraged.

Two crew members, John Flores and Alfred Navarro, say state officials cared more about the machinery and the contaminated concrete in the maintenance yard than they did for their workers. "If I knew then what I know now," says Navarro, "I would have never exposed my family."

Everyone agrees PCB is bad news, but no one agrees at what levels.
The crew's supervisor Joe Divito says, "I'm quite concerned about myself and all my employees who were exposed to it. We've had differing medical opinions. Some say it's a minor exposure, and others say we should be tested. The Lord only knows. I'm a civil engineer, not a doctor."

Environmentalists say that federal levels used by the state are too high, that health risks start at much lower levels of exposure. And the numerous tests performed on the spilled substance show radically differing readings.

Divito and his maintenance crew were exposed after an accident on Interstate 17 at the Durango Curve.

Vernon L. Webb, a 44-year-old trucker from Fairfield, Ohio, was hauling a freshly rebuilt electrical transformer in his flatbed when the northbound cargo struck the Buckeye Road overpass. The transformer stood fifteen feet ten inches. The overpass was only fifteen feet one inch high. The driver for Ligon Nationwide Incorporated in East St. Louis, Illinois, hit the overpass going 46 mph. According to a Department of Public Safety report, he had failed to read his paperwork, which said he was banned from driving his truck on I-17 between 19th Avenue and Northern. When the state highway patrol arrived, pieces of the concrete bridge were scattered over the road and more than 200 gallons of a slick liquid were raising hell with traffic. The cop cited the driver for failing to follow his permit papers and called for a state Department of Transportation cleanup crew. The nearby Grant Street exit ramp was closed. The exit was later reopened after test results showed only low levels of the substance.

The damage to the bridge was estimated between $90,000 and $120,000. The damage to the workers still hasn't been estimated.

"We were told it was totally pure mineral oil," Divito says. "So, we proceeded to clean it with just soap and water--no problem." The supervisor and his crew were mopping and shoveling the substance while wearing regular construction clothing, which does not protect against the toxic substance.

The next morning, some of the crew members returned to the accident scene to do mop-up work. Later that day, a hazardous-waste team from ENSCO showed up at the ADOT maintenance yard with protective clothing, instructed by the Arizona Department of Health Services to clean up the cleanup.

"They called in the white suits. They cleaned all my trucks--took them apart and wiped them down," Divito says. "Then they dug up all the concrete in my maintenance area where it was dripping."

The decontamination crew took apart the state truck that was carrying the residue of the oil spill. Some of the liquid had leaked onto the concrete underneath the truck. An excavation team dug up a six-foot hole to extract the contaminated ground. Then, the original crew members were ordered to turn in their clothes and tools--which were burned.

DHS officials were acting on information from initial test results of the mineral oil.

"If we had been told it was PCBs at the time, we would have been hosed down and our clothes stripped off," Divito says, recalling the procedure from a past spill. "If you knew it was hazardous, we would have treated it differently, but when they tell you it's mineral oil, you walk all over your house, sit on your carpets and throw your dirty clothes in with your wife's and kids'.

"Maybe, it's not a problem with this low a level of PCBs. But, you're not going to convince a lot of these guys that everything they contacted isn't contaminated."

Crew members Flores and Navarro say they're angry that so much attention was paid to the machinery and concrete. "They kept putting us off saying they were waiting for test results," Navarro says. "They said,`You're going to be checked.' This went on for two weeks until we finally got to see a doctor. Hell, they could have done that the following day."

Joe Puente, a DHS risk-assessment official, says he doesn't think the employees are at risk. He insists that the ENSCO cleanup and later health screenings for the ADOT crew were aimed mainly at easing the employees' fears.

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