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Judge backs Texas company over workers’ claims of toxic gas exposure in Alaska

An Anchorage Superior Court judge has ruled against a group of men seeking a punitive-damage award from Baker Hughes for neurological illnesses they say arose after they were exposed to toxic gases during a construction project.

Judge Eric Aarseth on Tuesday issued a single-page "final judgment" favoring "prevailing party" Baker Hughes, one of the world's largest oil-field services companies, with headquarters in Houston, Texas.

The decision came on the heels of a Dec. 22 order in which Aarseth granted a motion for summary judgment that had been filed by Baker Hughes. In that decision, Aarseth said there were "no further matters to litigate." He vacated a trial that had been set for early January.

The "alleged toxic gas exposure," Aarseth wrote in the December order, took place near a chemical transfer facility outside Kenai, where drilling chemicals are packaged for shipment to oil fields.

Baker Hughes owned and operated the facility, and in 2013 began building a modern transfer facility next to the old one.

The plaintiffs suing Baker Hughes were Christopher Lovely, Steven Adams, Robert Defoe, Chuck Van Curren and Dustin Leavitt.

The men worked on the project for UIC Construction, the contractor carrying out the construction for Baker Hughes. The men could not be reached for comment.

TV station KTVA in November interviewed Lovely and Adams. The men said they had suffered brain damage and other severe health problems that left them disabled. They said a horizontal exhaust pipe from the old building, where chemicals were transferred to containers, repeatedly blew toxic gas on them as they helped build the new facility next door.

The workers also suffered dizziness, hair loss, nausea, confusion, headaches, inexplicable rashes and other problems, according to the KTVA story and complaints filed in court.

After Baker Hughes became aware of the interviews, it filed a Nov. 20 motion to stop further pre-trial publicity. Aarseth on Dec. 6 partially denied the order. The motion had the effect of chilling public discussion, with law offices on both sides citing the pending order in refusing public comment at the time.

Baker Hughes argued in the case that the plaintiffs had already received workers' compensation benefits from UIC's insurance carrier. They said that under state law, an employee who had received such benefit from the contractor could not pursue further damages from the project owner.

On Wednesday, attorneys from both sides did not respond to requests for comment. It is unknown if the plaintiffs will appeal Aarseth's decision.

In early 2014, UIC personnel advised Baker Hughes to change the venting system. Baker Hughes said the pipe, connected to an exhaust fan inside the building, would be extended so gases and chemicals would be released above the building, not aimed directly at the construction site, plaintiffs said.

The alteration never occurred.

One dangerous release affecting the construction workers came May 8, 2014, the plaintiffs said. On that day, employees with Baker Petrolite, a Baker Hughes subsidiary, were cleaning a tote that had contained RE31151CRW. A corrosion inhibitor, the chemical can cause dizziness, nausea, organ damage, central nervous system depression and other problems, Aarseth wrote.

Following a state investigation into the incident, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development issued a citation to Baker Petrolite, Aarseth wrote. The state Department of Environmental Conservation accused Baker Hughes of a violation. But, analyzing soil samples collected directly beneath the exhaust pipe, ADEC concluded there was no indication of chemical contamination, Aarseth wrote.

Adams and Lovely had told KTVA they each compiled medical bills exceeding $1 million.

Aarseth said in his Dec. 22 decision that Baker Hughes had "at least some indication" that exhaust from the old building could reach the new site 40 feet away, and that extending the pipe upward would eliminate that risk. There is enough evidence to infer that Baker Hughes decided not to alter the pipe despite knowing the risks, Aarseth wrote.

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