Ten city of Durham employees were exposed to arsenic while repairing a water main in early June, with one worker’s hair arsenic concentration levels reaching over six times what is considered safe. According to emails reviewed by the INDY, they’d been ordered to work at a vacant property near 2700 Angier Avenue despite the fact that the site had, years earlier, been reported to state and federal regulators as contaminated, and employees were left untested for more than a month after the exposure was first reported.
When the employees were tested for exposure on July 10, four showed arsenic concentration levels exceeding one milligram of arsenic per kilogram of hair, which the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services deems the safe limit for exposure. One showed 6,115 micrograms of arsenic per kilogram.
The city has not provided treatment for the workers, according to Romey Gaddy, a Water Management employee and UE 150 N.C. Public Service Workers Union member who has been advocating for the employees. All of the affected employees have returned to work despite showing symptoms of arsenic exposure, such as vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea. (To be fatal, arsenic generally has to be directly ingested rather than enter the body through indirect or airborne exposure.)
“The city is trying to sweep it under the rug,” says Gaddy. “You’ve got supervisors, superintendents, managers saying asinine things like, ‘You’ve got nothing to worry about as long as you didn’t eat the dirt.’”
The now-unoccupied Angier Avenue property was home to a phosphate fertilizer plant until 1970 and is owned by ExxonMobil. Nearly twenty-one thousand tons of contaminated soil were removed from the site in 2012 by environmental engineering firm Arcadis, but some contaminated soil was left in place around the water main to prevent the structure from collapsing, according to the Department of Water Management. Arcadis registered the site as contaminated in the city’s utility locator service. The property also appears on a public EPA database of contaminated sites, which says that remediation was started in 2012 but does not list a completion date.
A six-member crew arrived at the damaged water main on June 8. After receiving clearance from the utility locator service—Jim Bateson, an environmental program supervisor at the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s Waste Management Division, says it’s not clear why the workers got the go-ahead—the crew worked knee-deep in contaminated soil without proper protective equipment such as hazmat suits or nitrile gloves for about ten hours before being relieved by another four-member crew. The work was completed that day.
On June 15, Arcadis engineer Kirstyn White wrote in an email to crew supervisor Terry Cameron and Water Management administrator Kenny Willard that she had overseen remediation of the site in 2012 and that contaminated soil was still present near the water main. City safety coordinator Christa Hendrix-Kenan wasn’t notified about the situation until Cameron reached out to her on June 20, according to union officials, at which point she began an investigation that led to the exposure tests in July. (Cameron declined to be interviewed on the advice of his attorney.)
“[The city] had to know that that ground was contaminated from the seventies,” Gaddy says. “I don’t see how they didn’t know.”
UE 150 has met with affected employees and compiled a list of demands on their behalf, including the firing of Willard and other Water Management administrators for alleged negligence, easier public access to records regarding soil contamination, annual contamination testing for city employees working in potentially hazardous environments, and compensatory damages for the affected employees. The union plans to present the demands to city manager Tom Bonfield this week, according to UE 150 organizer Dante Strobino.
“I don’t know why, if the site was marked as a contaminated site, that wouldn’t just automatically restrict them from entering,” says Strobino. “Clearly, workers are entering other sites that are contaminated, and there’s not a proper protocol.”
According to Water Management director Don Greeley, the city has “very clear work standard operating procedures” for workers in contaminated sites.
“Due to the nature of the work on June 8, the type of exposure (dermal, and not ingestion), and the amount of time workers may have been exposed, there was no health or safety risk to our staff,” Greeley told the INDY in a statement.
“Still,” he continued, “we consulted with these employees, and because they were concerned about their exposure, we began scheduling lab testing for them. We are working to finalize personalized interpretations of test results and guidance from a recognized physician of occupational and environmental medicine.”
Greeley did not say when the workers would be provided treatment or medical information.
For the UE 150, that’s not good enough.
“One of the guys is still vomiting,” Strobino says. “Still vomiting a month later.”
Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the arsenic concentration levels experienced by the affected workers and the method of testing they underwent to determine those levels.