Hundreds of contract employees arrived at Surry nuclear power plant in April to repair the aging facility.
Before work started, one of them told the Daily Press, safety officials said the jobs did not involve asbestos and any pipes containing asbestos would be clearly labeled.
They were wrong.
Flakes of the carcinogen went airborne after contractors cut a pipe, according to State Department of Labor and Industry reports obtained by the Daily Press under the Freedom of Information Act. Asbestos was later found on the clothes of a dozen workers and in three work trailers, the reports say.
How much asbestos the contractors were exposed to is unknown because the plant’s owner, Dominion Virginia Power, did not have air sampling equipment on site when workers cut into the pipes.
State investigators found that six of the eight companies involved were not at fault. Hopewell-based Quality Specialties Inc., in charge of handling asbestos, was fined $4,900 for not properly labeling the pipes. It is fighting the charge.
One investigation remains open. The state has not released any information other than its defendant: Dominion.
Arthur Call belongs to the Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Union Local 540 in Newport News. Known to his friends as “Buddy,” the Poquoson resident began work at the plant days before a tornado forced the shut-down of its two reactors on April 16.
Normally quiet, the plant hummed with activity.
Electricians rebuilt the switchyard, which carries electricity in and out of the plant, while others cleared a tangled mess of downed tree limbs and aluminum poles. More contractors refueled one of the reactors, a previously scheduled task.
On April 22, Call was in the turbine building, where electricity is produced, with a few dozen pipe fitters. Their task: remove the old pipes while the reactor was down.
Using a blowtorch, they cut into a pipe. After removing a few sections, Call, standing on a mezzanine between the second and third floor, noticed something in the air.
“You could see the fibers falling all over you,” he said. “They looked like dust particles or a really fine snow.”
Call double-checked the pipe — there was no asbestos warning. Puzzled, a few pipe fitters followed the pipe two floors down and found a label.
It read: “Danger Asbestos.”
A naturally occurring mineral, asbestos has been mined for commercial purposes in the U.S. since the 19th century.
Prized for its strength, resistance to heat and other properties, asbestos was used to make firefighter clothing, floor tiles and thousands of other products. Utility companies coated pipes and other power plant components with it to prevent fires.
Most products containing the material were banned or phased out in the 1990s after a series of court verdicts determined that exposure to asbestos fibers increases the chance of developing lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.
One of the more high-profile cases involved shipbuilders in Newport News, Portsmouth and Norfolk. In the decades after World War II, thousands of workers breathed in fibers while building and repairing Navy ships.
The federal Occupational Health Safety Administration responded by issuing strict guidelines designed to eliminate worker exposure to asbestos.
Often enforced by states, including Virginia, the rules require building owners and employers to notify contract employees and government agencies when they will be dealing with asbestos. They also require that any public or commercial building slated for demolition be inspected for the material.
Asbestos is often “abated” — an umbrella term that can mean removing the material, encasing it (usually in sheet-rock or plaster) or encapsulating it with painted coatings or other material.
In the dark
Call, who was not wearing a protective mask, said he was stunned to see the fibers.
A Dominion safety officer told him and other contractors days earlier that any asbestos previously in the plant had been abated, he said. The project’s general contractor, a French firm called Alstom Power Inc., repeated the same assurance during subsequent meetings, he said.
Even the Dominion employee who outlined the subcontractors’ work plans, which include hazard assessments, thought there was no asbestos. The employee said he “was under the assumption all the asbestos had been abated and that he did not list asbestos as one of the hazards to be aware of in the contractors (sic) packages,” the state reports say.
Dominion spokesman Richard Zuercher declined to comment on the work plans or what contract employees were told. Contract employees “are advised in their training of the presence of asbestos-containing materials” he said in an email to the Daily Press.
Quality Specialties received a permit from the state Department of Labor and Industry in March to remove asbestos from the plant. Company officials did not return phone calls.
Contractors replaced some asbestos-containing material from the turbine building in 2009 with non-asbestos insulation, but other areas containing asbestos that were not “expected to be disturbed or removed during the outage” were encapsulated, Zuercher wrote.
Call thinks that warning labels were covered over by the encapsulating material.
“It’s an unfortunate accident, probably from years before,” he said.
After spotting the fibers, Call’s foreman ordered the pipe fitters away while Dominion and Quality employees examined the pipe.
Over the following two days, contractors working in different areas of the turbine building again raised concerns they were exposed to asbestos, the state reports say.
On April 25, three days after the original incident, the workers were ordered out of the turbine building. Quality employees took samples from pipes, scaffolding, the floor, basement, work trailers, the clothes of 22 contractors and some of their vehicles.
Dominion officials called a meeting later that day. Contractors were told “there was asbestos found in the area” and nothing else, the state reports say.
A day later, on April 26, someone claiming to be an employee at the plant called the Department of Labor and Industry’s hotline. The state did not make a transcript of the call available to the Daily Press despite requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
A summary of the call, found in the reports, said the caller complained “there was an asbestos exposure for three days from a damaged pipe and that the company is not telling them what is going on.”
A state investigator arrived at the plant on April 27. Employees of one of the subcontractors, Philadelphia-based Day & Zimmerman NPS, told the investigator they thought all the asbestos had been removed in 2009.
While asbestos was found in the air of the turbine building, the amount did not exceed OSHA standards, Zuercher said.
“It was later confirmed that the work environment did not pose a danger to workers and their families,” he wrote in email to the Daily Press, including the italics.
The state investigator backed the claim but noted in reports that “no work was being conducted at the time of the sampling.”
Because three days elapsed from the initial exposure to the sampling, there is no way to determine how much asbestos the contractors encountered, said Dr. Arthur Frank, chair of Drexel University’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health.
“Just because” the air sampling is “below the legal allowable limit doesn’t mean it’s safe,” he said.
The pipes tested positive for two types of asbestos, according samples collected by Quality and Dominion, the state reports said.
They were made up of 2 percent chrysotile, which is the most common asbestos found in U.S. buildings, and 8 to 55 percent amosite asbestos, the reports said. Some studies suggest that amosite is more hazardous than chrysotile, but Frank said they are not conclusive.
The state has until Thursday to complete its investigation of Dominion.
Still at risk
It is estimated that asbestos kills 10,000 people annually in the U.S., according to Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. Most were exposed decades ago, the group says.
Despite increased awareness, workers like Call continue to be exposed to asbestos, said Doug Larkin, co-founder of the California-based Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. There aren’t enough state or federal inspectors to ensure that companies and building owners comply with OSHA laws, he said.
“It’s incredible that people are still being exposed today,” Larkin said. “This type of behavior is absolutely appalling.”
Adding to the difficulties is that asbestos typically takes 10 to 40 years to affect people’s health, Frank said. Many workers shrug off being tested because of the uncertainties and difficultly in assessing blame, he said.
At 54 years old, Call figures he is old enough not to worry too much. Still, he and co-workers are talking with lawyers and some are getting checked by doctors.
“They are at an increased risk,” Frank said. “But it’s hard to say if they’ll develop diseases. Only time will tell.”Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times