Once Surrounded by Asbestos, Now Surrounded by Their Fears
Art Valdez spent 26 years working in the dust in the nation’s last asbestos mill, pulling down $17.85 an hour before the place shut down last year.
He had a pension and five weeks’ paid vacation. He had health insurance for his family. He could afford to give cars to his two boys, visit friends in Texas and take his wife to Denny’s as often as he wished.
“I didn’t know what asbestos was,” he recalled recently. “I thought that was the best job ever.”
He didn’t fret when the bagging machines spewed powder all over him, or when he drove home with his maroon Silverado covered in white residue. He didn’t think much about the sludge cake he tracked into the house on his steel-toed boots or the dust that clung to his black hair and scattered when he hugged his kids.
Even after learning about the sometimes fatal hazards of asbestos, Valdez didn’t imagine that it might damage his lungs or mark him for cancer. The mill bosses told him that the kind of asbestos Union Carbide Corp. scooped out of the Diablo Mountains north of the Central California town of Coalinga wouldn’t hurt him, he said, and he believed them.
The workers who milled Union Carbide’s trademarked Calidria asbestos, Valdez said, “took the word of the company from Day One.”
That is, until recently.
In several trials across the country, makers of products containing Calidria, their workers and their customers have accused Union Carbide of wronging them. They have raised questions as to what Union Carbide really knew about an asbestos that one of its employees described, in the words of an internal 1974 report, as “harmless.” In turn, a small but growing number of mill hands have come to feel haunted, fearing that the work they did could end up killing them.
Over the decades, 450 men and women worked at the mill near King City, a town of 11,000 on the banks of the Salinas River. Many of them still live here, 30 miles from the mountains where Union Carbide’s chrysotile asbestos was mined in what today is a government-designated asbestos hazard area, where visitors are cautioned to avoid inhaling dust.
“I’m scared,” said Alice Rodriguez, whose husband, Roy, was a mill mechanic for 31 years and now makes a living fixing cars. They raised four children in their King City home, and she often cared for their six grandchildren there. “You don’t know how many times they picked up their papa’s boots and put that white crunchy stuff in their mouths.”
What angers the former mill hands is that Union Carbide may have kept them in the dark about what it knew of Calidria’s potential dangers, including the lung damage suffered by laboratory rats in Union Carbide’s own tests in the 1960s.
Valdez, a tall man comfortable in boots and Wranglers, is apparently healthy at age 52. But he can’t stop worrying about whether he and his friends have time bombs in their lungs. Since the mill closed last year, he has become something of an activist, a role he never expected to play.
“What if we get sick and die of cancer?” he said as he walked along the railroad tracks where trains loaded with asbestos once rattled toward Los Angeles. “God forbid.”
The Company’s Position
Union Carbide contends that recent research shows that, unlike those of other forms of asbestos, Calidria’s fibers are short enough to be easily expelled from the respiratory tract and lungs before causing damage.
In fact, in defending itself against people’s claims that Calidria in their homes or workplaces scarred their lungs or gave them cancer, the company has asserted that its asbestos couldn’t be the culprit because none of the King City mill hands has ever been determined to have an asbestos- related disease.
It might not be so simple, however. Company documents disclosed in lawsuits in Georgia, Texas and Florida indicate that Union Carbide doctors saw symptoms possibly associated with asbestos-related disease in King City workers on about three dozen occasions. At least three workers have died of cancers that may be associated with asbestos, though in each case other factors, such as smoking, could be to blame.
In any event, mesothelioma, a fatal cancer, strikes as many as 50 years after a victim’s initial exposure to asbestos. The legacy of the King City mill, which opened in 1963, might not be known for decades.
“This is just the beginning,” Alice Rodriguez said, “of a whole lot of wondering about what the hell happened here.”
In 1957, a prospector for Union Carbide, a chemicals company that produced the first antifreeze and portable batteries, discovered an extraordinary patch of what’s known as mountain leather sandwiched between layers of serpentine, the California state rock. The company staked its claim near the 5,164-foot-high Santa Rita peak in the Diablo Range.
Union Carbide reckoned that it could mine what it saw as a mother lode of asbestos for 4,000 years without hitting bottom. Even now it’s considered the world’s largest cache of asbestos.
“It’s huge,” said R.G. Coleman, who was a U.S. Geological Survey advisor to the company. “You are looking at a whole mountain that is 40% to 50% asbestos.”
The mill was built next to a rail line laid in 1886 to transport wheat ground at a plant run by John Steinbeck’s father. Just as wheat transformed “The Great Salinas Desert,” the asbestos mill rejuvenated King City. Jobs there were coveted by men who had worked sugar beet fields with short hoes, loaded crop-dusters with pesticide and taken enemy fire in Vietnam.
Valdez, a high school dropout who had dried garlic at a produce plant and pumped gas at the Wildhorse Truck Stop, started at $6 an hour -- pay dirt in the rural Salinas Valley in 1977.
Back then, industry’s appetite for asbestos was insatiable. The mineral’s sturdy, fire-resistant, pliable fibers were woven into the fabric of American life -- embedded in insulation, automobile brakes, shingles, paper, plastics, flooring, glue, even tennis court coating.
For years, the mill, Union Carbide’s only asbestos production plant, could barely keep up with demand from customers such as Georgia-Pacific Corp. and U.S. Gypsum Co. Workers clocked 12-hour shifts, taking home paychecks fat with overtime. Union Carbide marketed all the Calidria it could pump out, about $92 million worth over 22 years, before selling the King City plant to an investor group in 1985. (The investor group operated the plant until shuttering it and dissolved shortly thereafter.)
By the mid-1980s, asbestos was a pariah, a legal nightmare for most any company that had ever produced or used it. Some number crunchers at the company estimated that if it were blamed for 3,500 cancer diagnoses a year, according to a 1983 memo that recently surfaced, the potential annual settlement cost could be $105 million.
Today, Union Carbide, a unit of Dow Chemical Co. since 2001, faces a mountain of lawsuits over injuries and deaths blamed on the asbestos shipped around the world from King City. The plaintiffs include painters exposed to Calidria in wall coatings, roughnecks who inhaled it when they ripped open bags of drilling mud and drywallers and do-it-yourselfers who were dosed with it when they sanded down joint compound.
None of the King City workers is a plaintiff in any of these cases, but Union Carbide has made them key to its defense: If the people who milled Calidria aren’t ill, then the plaintiffs are blaming the wrong asbestos -- and the wrong company.
Outside the King City mill, a gated cluster of weathered buildings off Highway 101, a dune of raw asbestos ore, looking like a pile of dirty snow, long rose above the rooflines. The ore was mixed with water, and gravity machines separated tailings from slurry, which was pressed into cakes, dried and pulverized. The powder was airlifted into storage silos that fed bagging machines.
The mill was considered a model in asbestos hygiene. It was state of the art for its time, the first to use a wet process to control the dust. But it was dusty nonetheless, workers said, especially when churning out its biggest moneymaker, Resin Grade 244.
“It was a real fine powder, finer than baby powder,” said Ernie Gallardo, who started at the mill at 22 after earning a Purple Heart in Vietnam. “This stuff would just float.”
Dr. Robert Sawyer, an occupational medicine specialist who toured the mill in the mid-1980s, described in a deposition what he saw: “Calidria was everywhere. There was a patina of dust on everything.”
By all accounts, the dustiest places were the two bagging rooms, where George Navarro, like his friend Art Valdez and most new hires, started. Operating the machines took finesse.
“They blew a lot of bags,” recalled Navarro, who was hired in 1974. “If the air was not regulated right, they would blow right up in your face.”
Baggers were eventually required to wear disposable masks, and later respirators. But when demand was high, baggers said, they took breaks in the room, removing their respirators, perching on bags of asbestos and lighting cigarettes or eating sandwiches.
Union Carbide said that breaks without respirators would have violated policy and that it had no record of workers reporting such activities. Over the years, to reduce the effect of exploding bags, the company curtained off the room from the rest of the operation and enclosed the bagging machines.
Another dirty job was tending the “dust collectors” that suctioned and filtered air through a maze of wire cages covered with cloth “socks.” Mill hands were periodically sent inside storage tanks to replace the filters and fix leaks.
Finding a leaky sock could take all day, said Manuel Zuniga, a 23-year mill veteran.
“It was terrible,” he said. “You crawled out and sometimes you’d have to rub it out of your eyes.”
When production switched from one grade of powder to another, somebody had to climb inside the silos and shovel out residual powder. That job belonged to Zuniga for five years.
“You’d come out” of the silo, he said, “and turn your pockets inside out and they’d be filled with asbestos.”
Union Carbide lawyer Peter Bicks said mill records and the testimony of workers and plant managers vindicated the company.
“Union Carbide always went the extra mile to protect its people,” he said. Indeed, internal safety audits provided by the company showed that workers were concerned about asbestos exposure, but some took comfort in the steps that mill managers were taking to reduce the amount of dust in the air. One five-year plant veteran, for instance, “felt the company was doing what it could.”
In 1978, the year after Valdez went to work at the mill, federal health authorities launched a campaign to alert shipyard workers that their exposure to boats’ asbestos-laden insulation put them at risk for asbestosis and cancer. The first asbestos lawsuit had been filed in 1966 by a man who had been found to have asbestosis, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the scope of the perils of inhaling the fibers began to be widely recognized.
King City mill hands were alarmed. They said Union Carbide moved to reassure them. In a draft of a letter to employees disclosed in a lawsuit -- it’s unclear whether the letter actually went out -- the company wrote: “The problems you are hearing about on TV are not relevant to our plant and our operations.”
The assertions about Calidria set some minds at rest.
“They showed us some kind of reports, scientifically, that it had been proven” that the asbestos milled in King City dissolved in the lungs before doing harm, said Eugene Plaskett, who worked at the mill for 33 years and is now a Baptist minister and farm equipment fabricator. “I was taking their word for it.”
He said recently that he still believed Calidria was harmless. In any case, he said, “it was my choice to work there.”
Union Carbide stresses that, even though Calidria is a relatively safe form of asbestos, it took the most conservative approach possible, advising plant workers that breathing in any asbestos could put them at risk. Warning signs, the company notes, were posted throughout the mill, and employees were regularly briefed about the importance of avoiding inhaling the dust.
“It’s hard to ignore information that is right in front of your face, including people wearing respirators, warning signs, requirements that people see physicians and be X-rayed,” Bicks, the company lawyer, said.
Former mill manager John Myers, now King City’s mayor, agrees that workers were properly warned. “We never told them it was safe,” he said in an interview. “We never tried to hide anything.”
David Hicks, a 27-year plant veteran who rose to superintendent, certainly got the message. “I knew from the day I went to work there that asbestos was hazardous,” he said. “They told us it was.”
However, Valdez and others say mill bosses told them that the safety measures and air and chest monitoring programs were undertaken merely to comply with government regulations -- but weren’t really necessary.
Other documents also suggest that the company wasn’t always completely open with workers. In 1974, long after some studies had shown that exposure to even low doses of asbestos could cause cancer, Union Carbide handed out a brochure titled “What Every Worker Should Know About Asbestos.” It encouraged its mill hands to quit smoking and promoted dust-control efforts. But it also implied that workers would be safe inhaling some asbestos -- just not too much.
“When mines and factories are properly controlled,” the brochure said, “the asbestos content of the air will be low and within safe levels, and will present no hazard to the employee.”
The year the mill opened, Union Carbide’s corporate medical director sent to a manager a copy of a book on lung disease, including a chapter on asbestosis. “It is not the sort of book,” he said in an accompanying letter, “we would want readily available to plant personnel in general.”
Union Carbide also didn’t share with workers the details of a study it commissioned three years later comparing the scarring potential of its asbestos with that mined in Canada. Injected into the bellies of rats and guinea pigs, the confidential report concludes, Calidria “produces the most severe reaction.” (Union Carbide now says the test was too crude to have any validity. Other experts disagree.)
In the 15 months since the mill closed, Valdez said, he has learned more about asbestos than he did in a quarter of a century on the job.
His education began in early 2003, when he and a few buddies were on the skeleton mill crew preparing the place for mothballs. Navarro, one of Valdez’s closest friends, came back from his exit physical with the mill doctor with disturbing news: An X-ray had revealed a spot on his lung. Unlike others whose lung problems and cancer deaths over the years had been chalked up to cigarettes, Navarro, 54, had never smoked.
Valdez and Navarro began to doubt everything they had believed about Calidria. The hazard sign on the mill gate they had passed blithely for years now gave them pause: “Do Not Create Dust. Breathing Asbestos is Hazardous to Your Health.”
Not long after Navarro’s X-ray, Valdez was watching Roy Rodriguez, at the helm of a bulldozer, pushing tons of unused ore, refined asbestos and debris into a ravine. Valdez decided to grab some specimens, placing the bags in a cardboard box and wrapping it with duct tape. Then he met with Frank Fernandez, an Oakland lawyer whose firm has represented more than a dozen veterans of the former Johns-Manville Corp. asbestos plant in Stockton, winning a $20-million verdict on behalf of a man who started there in 1959 and died of mesothelioma.
From Fernandez, Valdez said, he learned enough about asbestos to confirm his worst fears.
The lawyer didn’t even open the box; he told Valdez he already knew that the mill’s signature powder was dangerous. Calidria fibers are neither uniformly short nor safe, he said.
Many public health experts agree with Fernandez.
“The general consensus, at least for the scientists who are involved in occupational and environmental regulatory issues, is that all forms of asbestos are capable of causing lung cancer, mesothelioma and fibrotic asbestosis,” said Melanie Marty, a California Environmental Protection Agency official who monitors research on the asbestos produced in the state.
Valdez took the news to his mill buddies. “They were all shocked,” he said.
Within months, 20 former mill hands had sought Fernandez’s counsel. Medical records and air sampling reports that he demanded and received from Union Carbide and the subsequent mill owners are being evaluated by experts, the lawyer said.
But no matter what the experts determine, unless one of the former workers is found to have an asbestos-related disease, there may be no cause for an injury claim.
Navarro’s doctor is monitoring the spot on his lung. Others in King City also wonder about their health. Manuel Zuniga, now a truck driver earning $13 an hour, about $5 less than what he made at the mill, said tests showed that his lungs suffer diminished capacity. He was a cigarette smoker but only for five years, quitting about a decade ago.
“I keep getting weaker and weaker,” he said. “But nobody has ever really sat me down and said, ‘Let’s find out why.’ ”
Valdez said some of his fellow mill hands feel as if they have a score to settle with Union Carbide. But if getting cancer is the only way to do so, they would obviously rather not.
This year, Valdez moved to Stockton and enrolled in a construction training program. His mill pension pays $620 a month. He and his wife are without health insurance, and he can’t afford regular chest X-rays.
He spends a lot of time revisiting the past. He recalls that, home from work at the mill, he usually headed for the bathroom to clean up, leaving white tracks on the maroon living room carpet in the two-bedroom ranch house he and Tina rented. Before he hit the shower, he would throw his arms around his sons -- and later his grandson. Sometimes, he said, bone-tired after a noon-to-midnight shift, he would sink into the sofa in his dusty clothes to watch TV before getting into bed next to Tina.
That, he said, is the hard part of remembering. He wishes he had been fully aware of what he was getting into when he started at the mill 27 years ago. “Then I would have had a choice. I would have said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to work with this stuff. I’m not taking this home to my kids.’ But no, they didn’t tell us that.”
Part 2, in Sunday Business: Union Carbide faces a mountain of litigation over its alleged claim that its Calidria brand asbestos was safe.