Divers’ Suit Claims PCBs in Bay Made Them Ill
Thirteen professional divers filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the San Diego Unified Port District and two large defense contractors, charging that they became ill after exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) the two companies allegedly discharged into San Diego Bay.
The lawsuit charges that Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical, General Dynamics and the Port District--which owns land on which the firms’ plants are located--were negligent in allowing the release of the suspected carcinogens into an area of the bay known as Convair Lagoon.
It also alleges that PCB releases from the two companies constitute violations of the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Clean Water Act and other federal statutes regulating the handling and storage of hazardous wastes.
Kenneth Noel, an attorney for the divers, said most of his 13 clients are or were employed as search-and-rescue workers for the San Diego Harbor Police or as maintenance divers with the Port District. Several worked in underwater construction and maintenance jobs for private companies.
Two of the plaintiffs--one of whom died of his affliction April 9--allegedly developed lymphoma, or cancer of the lymph system, from their years of swimming in the bay. A third diver claims he contracted a severe form of anemia known as paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria from exposure to the toxins.
Noel said the balance of the divers have complained of nausea, dizziness and chronic recurring rashes that appear to be chloracne, a severe skin problem that can occur after exposure to chlorinated compounds like PCBs.
“These men are scared,” Noel said, adding that 5 of the 13 are still employed as divers. “They have families dependent upon them and they are worried about their health and their security and their future. It’s time somebody paid for contamination of the bay.”
The lawsuit is seeking unspecified general damages plus $100 million in punitive damages for each of the 13 plaintiffs.
PCBs are man-made chlorinated hydrocarbons that were used for many years as fluids in electrical transformers and capacitors. Production was banned by the federal government in 1978, following evidence that the chemicals cause cancer in laboratory animals and have other health effects on humans.
PCBs can be found, however, in old transformers, capacitors and other equipment still in use at Teledyne Ryan’s plant on Harbor Drive near Lindbergh Field. A General Dynamics spokesman said PCBs are no longer used at the company’s bayside facility.
Rudy Von Burg, a toxicologist with the state Department of Health Services, said PCBs are a concern because they are persistent and “bioaccumulative,” meaning they tend to build up in the human body. But Von Burg called the chemicals “highly overrated” in their toxicity.
“There are no convincing chronic effects attributable to PCBs in humans,” Von Burg said. “There are all sorts of allegations, but no scientific evidence to prove it. So I imagine it would be very difficult to establish a cause and effect case.”
Noel, however, asserts that there is a definitive connection between the divers’ exposure to the contaminated water and their medical problems today.
“The EPA banned production of this stuff back in the 1970s, and there is plenty of evidence that it causes cancer in animals,” Noel said. “We haven’t gotten any human volunteers that I know of, so of course we haven’t got any definitive human studies.”
Charles Campe, 42, is one of two divers who allege they contracted lymphoma after a career of diving in San Diego Bay. Campe’s lymphoma has been in remission since 1982, but he says he is constantly worried that it could recur.
“I don’t know for sure whether this stuff brought on my cancer, but if it causes it in lab animals, then isn’t there the possibility it can cause it in humans too?” Campe said. “I feel if the chance exists, something should be done.”
Campe was a Harbor Police diver between 1972 and 1984, when he quit his job after learning about the possibility of contaminants in the bay.
Officials with General Dynamics and the Port District declined to comment on the divers’ charges because they had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit. But Conward Williams, general counsel for Teledyne Ryan, said his company “is not aware of any scientific evidence that establishes that the very low levels of PCBs detected in Convair Lagoon would cause any form of human cancer.”
As for allegations that the firm was negligent in allowing the release of chemicals into the bay, Williams said, “We have never dumped any PCBs into our storm drain system. We’re not aware of any instances where that has occurred.”
Despite that position, state water quality officials last year released a report accusing Teledyne Ryan of discharging the toxic pollutants down storm drains leading into Convair Lagoon.
Tests by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board found that levels of PCBs in sediments of the lagoon were among the highest ever detected along the California coast. In 1985, the level exceeded that at which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends banning PCB-contaminated food.
The regional board blamed Teledyne Ryan in part for the contamination. In September, company officials agreed to clean the PCB-fouled storm drain sumps but denied they were guilty of polluting the bay. Last week the regional board issued an order directing Teledyne Ryan to conduct further sampling of sediment in their storm drain system, a move that may lead to a new clean-up effort by the company.
Lower levels of PCBs were found in a storm drain sump used by General Dynamics. The board staff is now conducting inspections at General Dynamics and a half-dozen other companies near Convair Lagoon in order to further pinpoint the source of the chemicals, said Art Coe, supervising engineer for the agency.
Coe also said an investigation will begin soon to detect possible sources of PCBs in the South Bay.
According to Noel, the divers filing the lawsuit worked in the bay between two and eight years, beginning in 1971. Many worked for the Harbor Police, searching for evidence, retrieving boats or bodies and cleaning up debris. Others performed underwater construction or maintenance work for the Port District or are employed through private firms.
When they learned last year about the presence of PCBs in the bay, the divers “became alarmed about what sort of danger they’d been in,” Noel said.
“Some of these guys started to think about the nausea and dizziness and how they’d have to get out of the water and vomit on the beach,” Noel said.
Campe and James Olaveson, also a diver for the Harbor Police, allegedly contracted lymphoma from PCB exposure. Olaveson died in April at age 40, and his wife’s wrongful-death allegations are included in the suit filed Tuesday. Campe now works for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.