Monday, November 13, 2006

Former miners file suit against Alcoa

By Nathan Blackford-Warrick Publishing Online
November 08, 2006

Former miners and their families have alleged for nearly three years that waste dumped at the Squaw Creek Mine north of Boonville was the cause of a multitude of physical ailments. Now, 41 people - mostly miners and their spouses - have filed suit asking for damages from the mine's owner, Alcoa.

Starting in 1965, Alcoa disposed of various waste materials at Squaw Creek, including hexavalent chromium sludge and coal tar pitch, into open pits. There are at least 12 identified waste disposal sites in the north field of the Squaw Creek Mine.

The former miners contend that the waste was toxic and that Alcoa knew or should have known the danger the material posed to those who worked near it. The suit asks for unspecified monetary damages from Alcoa for negligence, infliction of emotional distress and loss of consortium.

The suit was filed with the Warrick County Circuit Court on Oct. 23. Attorney Peter Racher of the Indianapolis law firm Plews, Shadley, Racher and Braun is representing the plaintiffs.

“We feel very, very strongly that a responsible company would have exposed wastes of these types to a vulnerable population,” said Racher. “No one informed (the plaintiffs) that working with hexavalent chromium was harmful to human skin or human organs. No one told them that coal tar pitch contains many substances known or suspected of being human carcinogens.”

The suit contends that many of the plaintiffs have relatives or friends who have died from cancer as a result of exposure to toxic substances at Squaw Creek. That has caused them to worry about the “precariousness of their future health, the well being of their loved ones, and the looming imminence of premature death.”

Miners believe that they have suffered a wide range of health problems - though cancer is a main concern - from exposure to toxic waste. The suit claims that former mine workers “have been required to endure painful surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy and other treatments” due to effects from toxic waste.

But Alcoa says - as it has contended from the beginning - that the materials are not toxic and did not cause the health problems the miners have had.

“We've believed all along, and according to the information we've had, that those materials would not result in health impacts,” said Alcoa spokesperson Sally Rideout-Lambert. “These are not the type of materials that would cause these health problems.”

Racher disagrees.

“That is a very controversial position that Alcoa takes,” said Racher. “We think that the science had been in place for decades about the adverse human health impacts associated with the substances that were disposed of at the mine. And Alcoa knew that the people who would come in contact with these substances were untrained and unprotected.”

Racher says that the Material Safety Data sheets concerning coal tar pitch and hexavalent chromium sludge predict that chronic exposure to the materials will produce exactly the kinds of health effects suffered by the former miners.

“These people have suffered incredibly,” said Racher. “These are folks for whom honorable work at the mine was their livelihood. They expected that through hard work they would enjoy good lives. Instead, through hard work they got sick, and with illnesses that are life-threatening. Every one of these people, their lives have been completely upended.”

How much material was actually dumped at the mine is unclear. The United Mine Workers Union Local 1189 estimates that approximately 71 million cubic feet of chromium sludge and 69 million gallons of coal tar pitch were dumped. Lambert says those figures are estimates, generally based on how much waste could have been produced rather than by actual counts.

Alcoa owned the Squaw Creek Mine through a subsidiary known as Alcoa Fuels, Inc. Company officials have admitted that waste was dumped at the mine, though they have contended it was done by the rules.

Alcoa also set up a health screening program for the miners through the University of Cincinnati Center for Occupational Health. The final results of that study are not complete.

Mining ended in the north field at Squaw Creek in 1987, and the mine stopped all production in 1998. A 2004 report from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management indicates that the waste material has not moved or become a health hazard.

Another former miner, Bil Musgrave, had filed a similar lawsuit against Alcoa in February.

But that case has been delayed in federal court, and Racher said that the second suit, which is not a class-action, would be able to stay in the Warrick County courts.


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