Washington, DC — A long-delayed state health department report on a 2006 incident at Alaska’s Fort Wainwright finds that an unknown volatile chemical likely inflicted nerve damage on workers. The draft report, posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), finds that the chemical may be still present onsite and the area, now a parking lot, “should not be disturbed at any time in the future” without alerting environmental authorities. At least four workers were permanently disabled and are still seeking compensation for medical bills.
The report by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services entitled “Chemical Exposure Incident at the Hangar 6 Construction Site June 29th and 30th, 2006” has still not been finalized. In building Aircraft Maintenance Hangar No. 6, a chemical was encountered by the construction crew that caused more than 30 workers to require hospitalization, at least 4 of whom continue to suffer disabilities.
Hangar 6 was built on the grounds of a 1940s-era structure that burnt down in 2004. Despite the fact that the site was a “designated Hazardous Waste Accumulation point” the Corps of Engineers work-up stated “No contaminated soils are suspected at this project location.” When the workers broke through a cap covering a black, oily substance they were immediately overcome by nausea, headaches, and a host of other symptoms. The state health report found –
- An unknown, volatile chemical likely caused nerve damage to the disabled workers;
- Even after the exposures, work continued on the site and was halted only upon discovery of an unexploded mortar shell; and
- The exposure site, now a parking lot, likely poses no further damage unless it is disturbed.
“Construction workers on American military bases play Russian roulette never knowing if they will uncover a toxic nightmare,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Fort Wainwright has been on the national Superfund list since 1990 due to a myriad of contaminated sites. “Two years after a designated hazardous waste site burned, the Army sent workers to dig up the site with no warning or protective equipment. What will stop the Army from sending workers to dig up this same site in five or ten years with similar results?”
The state health report was initiated in October 2006 and the draft was completed more than four years later in November 2010. The reason for this inordinate delay in finishing the draft is not publicly known and the draft was obtained through a public records request by the attorney seeking to obtain workers’ compensation for the disabled construction crew. The draft report is awaiting final approval from the federal Centers for Disease Control, which helped finance the review.
A civil suit by the workers against the U.S. Army was dismissed because the workers, who were not federal employees but were employed by a private contractor, were limited to state workers’ compensation as their only relief, yet have not been finally awarded that compensation.
“The casualties at Hangar 6 were utterly avoidable,” added Ruch, pointing to similar incidents at Fort Wainwright that have also been left unresolved. “The original negligence at the base, however, has been compounded by government health authorities who have dawdled so long that it appears to be a deliberate decision to render any review irrelevant by the passage of time.”