A BITTER SPILL TO SWALLOW
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.
"There is probably not much of a chance for adverse effects to the personnel who were exposed," Puente says. "It was a short exposure at low levels, but we're not taking any chances. We value our employees. But, it's more for their peace of mind than for adverse effects."
The workers and some environmentalists dispute that. "It doesn't give much peace of mind," Divito says of his crew, some of whom claim to have developed eye and skin irritations. "They're saying if they [the state] were concerned enough to come dig out a hole to get rid of the stuff in the maintenance yard, then why aren't they concerned about the carpet that one of my guy's little daughters plays on all day long."
The underlying questions still haunt the workers. How high was the PCB level and what levels are acceptable?
"PCBs are a banned substance. It is one of the most heavily regulated toxic wastes in America," says Will Collette, spokesperson for the Citizens Clearinghouse, an environmental watchdog group based in Arlington, Virginia. "It is an extreme hazard to human beings. For these people to be left hanging is criminal. It takes neither a rocket scientist nor chemist to figure out those employees were treated in a cavalier fashion."
The initial tests performed by DHS and DEQ indicated "a problem." Secondary tests gave results ranging from nearly zero to double the warning levels set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA says that at fifty parts per million of PCB, humans should not contact the substance and a cleanup effort is warranted. The initial tests registered 50 and 100 parts per million. But the type of test used--similar to a pool chlorine test--can produce false readings, experts say. Secondary tests, analyzed by an EPA-approved independent lab, registered 37 and 74 parts per million. The lower reading was taken from a sample of the cleanup material and the higher reading from some of the remaining oil in the transformer.
However, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric and Eastern Electric, a Phoenix shop that rebuilt the transformer, claim much lower levels. PG&E says it tested the transformer before it left the Bay area and the oil registered only 16.5 parts per million. After the transformer was cleaned and rebuilt by Eastern Electric, two independent labs say the levels were at less than one part per million.
Shell Oil Company, which produced the replacement coolant for the transformer that leaked, says its mineral oil contains less than one part per million of PCB.
Eastern Electric plant manager Frank Galasso says he can't comment on the testing discrepancies or why the transformer fluid was contaminated.
"It's either one or the other," Puente says. "Either somebody didn't clean the transformer or the [replacement] oil was higher in PCB levels."
Environmentalists say the numbers game is useless.
"The numbers came out of the air," says Steve Lester, the science director and toxicologist for the Citizens Clearinghouse. "I'm not aware of any health basis for the number fifty. It was economically feasible. This was a reasonable number placed because of the hardship on [the power] industry. If the number had been placed lower, the power companies would have had to replace every transformer in the country. If the number was based on health effects, the number would have been much lower."
Lester says PCB exposure leads to long-term problems, damaging the nervous system and skin, as well as causing cancer. He says he's not concerned with the varying numbers because they are dependent upon what was sampled and what each lab is looking for. There are more than 200 different types of PCBs, he says, but most labs only concentrate on the seven most common ones.
"I'm not surprised at anything anymore, given the analysis at the labs," Lester says. "Even if the level was below fifty, they're handling a contaminated liquid. That's not a magic number and it's not based on a health basis. It could have long-term damage."
That's exactly what worries the ADOT crew. "We've been cleaning spills like this for twenty years," Flores says. "We don't know how many of these things we've cleaned up."
Asked what the crew members now want, Flores snaps, "We don't want nothing. We want the truth.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.