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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Escambia Pensacola Scandal: One Worker Recalls

Air Date: Week of

While investigating the problems in this Pensacola community, reporter John Rudolph spoke with one former worker of the Escambia Treating Company who describes some of the working conditions during the 18 years he was employed at the chemical wood treating plant. The worker, Robert Lee Harrell, had two sons born with serious birth defects.


CURWOOD: Moving away from Mount Dioxin may bring relief for some local residents, but long-term health effects are likely to linger. That's because members of the community spent decades exposed to a variety of toxic chemicals, which can persist in their bodies for years and can even be passed onto their children. The companies themselves have been out of business for years, but former workers at the plants are among those who got the heaviest doses. On a recent trip to Pensacola, reporter John Rudolph spoke with one of them.

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RUDOLPH: Robert Lee Harrell is retired, but he still wears working man's clothes. A dark green shirt and trousers, and a worn baseball cap perched on his head. Harrell has the rough hands of a man who has done manual labor for most of his life. His face is rough, too, evidence, he says, of years of exposure to dangerous chemicals. Harrell was employed by the Escambia Treating Company in Pensacola, Florida. The company made telephone poles and railroad ties, treating the wood with a variety of chemicals including creosote and pentachloriphenol. On a recent afternoon, Harrell sat in his front yard overlooking a busy residential street, and recalled what the job was like.

HARRELL: I was hired on a Sunday and I worked there until -- well, I figured it up, it was 18 years that I did work there. It was horrible for us all, but we all had to try to make a living. From behind we had no other choice than to put up with what was going on or either move on.

RUDOLPH: Harrell went to work for the Escambia Treating Company in the mid-1960s. He's not exactly sure of the date, but it was before the enactment of many laws protecting the health and safety of industrial workers. Even so, Harrell says he could tell that the chemicals he was working with were dangerous.

HARRELL: We also used to clean out them old tanks, creosote tanks, and phenol tanks. We didn't have no masks, we didn't have no eye goggles. The only thing we had, every time we had to go into one of those tanks, was a -- is just our own way of breathing, no kind of safety whatsoever. A rain suit. And what we mostly used, and you'd have to come out every so often and try to catch some air and then go back in.

RUDOLPH: Like virtually all the production workers at the Escambia Treating Company, Harrell is black. All the managers and supervisors were white. Harrell recalls earning about 65 cents an hour for his labor. In his words, "we were slaves." Harrell says if the plant supervisor discovered that a worker was leaving the company for another job, the supervisor would call the new employer and tell them not to hire the man. The company's approach to environmental safety was equally callous. In 1990 a Federal jury found that the firm had a history of misleading the government and its own employees about the degree of environmental damage at the plant. Chemical spills were frequent and never cleaned up. Harrell says spills often occurred around large tanks where telephone poles were treated.

HARRELL: A lot of times that stuff would come out those tanks when they'd be pumping on, it would spring a leak. Just like gas or anything like that. And sometimes it would just send up the whole place around there, and you could see it, you know, a pipe or something busts like that, and it would be escaping. But we'd still have to work. And the only time that I can recall that they had us knock off, I think it caught a-fire that one time. And all of us that could ran toward the highway, all them they had run to the railroad track. But other than that, I'd be willing to tell them in front of their faces or whatever it takes, we caught particular hell.

RUDOLPH: One of Harrell's jobs at the Escambia Treating Company was getting rid of waste chemicals. He tells of filling up an old tank truck and driving to the local dump, where he would open a valve and let the chemicals run out into the ground. At other times he worked around chemicals that had been dumped at the plant.

HARRELL: They had two old pits in the back, and they were open. They didn't have no, they weren't covered with no kind of a tarp or nothing. And then when it rained, those pits would run over, and with you coming and going in different places around there you didn't have any other choice than to step into it, and your shoes, a pair of shoes wouldn't last you much more than just say about 2 or 3 weeks the most. And then they'd start turning up almost looking you in the face.

RUDOLPH: Robert Harrell eventually managed to leave the Escambia Treating Company and got a job driving a truck. A few years later the plant shut down, forced out of business by the high cost of environmental cleanup. But Harrell and others who worked at the plant or lived near it continue to suffer from health problems they believe were caused by exposure to dioxin and other chemicals. Harrell's 2 sons were born with birth defects: one with a hole in his heart, the other with a hole near his ear. Harrell has skin rashes that he says won't go away. He suffers from dizzy spells. And, at the age of 64, is losing the use of his legs.

HARRELL: We worked in the thing so long, ain't no doubt about it; it took a lot out of us. We'd be way more better men than we are today; our health would be a lot better. And it would really take a miracle to replace what they have taken out, what that stuff had did to all of us.

RUDOLPH: All that remains of the plant where Robert Harrell worked is a huge pile of soil contaminated with dioxin, a deadly chemical byproduct. Mount Dioxin, as it's called, was created when the US Environmental Protection Agency tried to clean up the site, but ran out of money to complete the job. Eventually the EPA is expected to resume cleanup operations. Currently EPA has no plans to address the health problems faced by Robert Harrell and others who worked at the plant or live nearby. For Living on Earth, this is John Rudolph.



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