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Unearthed toxin at Fort Wainwright likely injured workers

Jill Burke

In summer 2006, as private construction workers bulldozed and excavated on a project at Fort Wainwright -- a U.S. Army base in Fairbanks, Alaska -- they unearthed something that more than four years later continues to haunt some of them. While preparing to build a new hangar and parking lot at a site where a previous hangar had burned down, a foul smell overtook the crew after a tractor operator dug through a layer of clay. Workers immediately became ill, four of whom remain disabled to this day, according to the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

PEER is concerned that the U.S. Army isn't doing enough to prevent the same volatile agent from hurting someone again, and wants answers about why a state-level inquiry into the incident and its public health implications have taken so long to complete. Only now has a draft version of the report surfaced, prepared by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services in tandem with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. PEER obtained and posted the report, entitled "Chemical Exposure Incident at the Hangar 6 Construction site, June 29th and 30th, 2006, Fort Wainwright, Alaska" on its website after it was released to an attorney in response to a public records request.

In 1990, the military base was included on the National Priorities List of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because of the presence of several hazardous substances within a landfill, including "waste oil, waste fuel, spent solvents, paint residues, and fuel tank sludge," and a nearby area intended for housing which had been used for "storage of petroleum products, solvents, and other chemicals and for disposal of power plant ash and slag, which contain heavy metals such as chromium and mercury," according to a description of the situation by the EPA.

"Construction workers on American military bases play Russian roulette never knowing if they will uncover a toxic nightmare," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch in a prepared statement. "Two years after a designated hazardous waste site burned, the Army sent workers to dig up the site with no warning or protective equipment. What will stop the Army from sending workers to dig up this same site in five or ten years with similar results?"

The draft report concluded the unidentified chemical released from the soil harmed workers who inhaled it while they worked at the site. It also concluded that the air at Hangar 6 was no longer a health hazard because the area of exposure from which the chemical was released is now contained and undisturbed because it sits buried beneath a parking lot. "This means that if the unknown chemical is still present in a pocket of soil it would no longer be a public health hazard because it cannot reach people's breathing zone," according to the report.

In 2006 when it was released, workers described the chemical as pungent, chalky and metallic tasting but couldn't specifically identify it. Many experienced nausea and vomiting, abdominal cramps, dizziness, headaches, muscle and joint pain and weakness, and some also experienced chest pain and numbness in their hands or feet. Some symptoms lasted months. For a few, the symptoms have lasted for years.

Although the blood and urine samples were collected from the workers to try to pinpoint the chemical they may have encountered, because the samples weren't collected immediately after the exposure, researchers contributing to the report had no way to know if certain chemicals known to be problem agents were at the site or made their way into the workers' bodies. While medical scientists can detect the presence of such agents in blood and urine, it must generally be done within hours because of how quickly some of the chemicals can break down. Further hindering the ability to pinpoint the chemical was the lack of on-site air testing simultaneous to the onset of worker illness. The "chemical could have evaporated before any sampling was performed," according to the report.

The reports go on to list as "unfortunate" that "the attending physicians did not obtain blood and urine specimens from the workers when they initially reported to the hospital" and that a "field screener" -- someone that monitors air safety levels with specialized equipment -- wasn't on site at the time of the incident.

The DHSS-ATSDR health report concluded that while the site of the chemical emission is considered safe because it is capped beneath a parking lot, there is no way to know if it would remain safe in the event another construction project were to resume. It may be that all of the chemical evaporated. But because pockets of it may remain, the report's authors recommend that the site not be disturbed without consulting with environmental regulators and, that if excavation at the site is ever again planned, a safety plan be developed to keep workers safe.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com