HERMISTON - A lawyer representing 18 workers who were sickened while working on the Umatilla Chemical Depot's incinerator site said more than 30 workers were stricken in a September mustard gas leak.
Citing U.S. Army records, James McCandlish said the Army did nothing to help the ailing workers and instead took many measures to keep the "truth" from being known. McCandlish filed an injunction Monday morning to stop operations at the construction site until more elaborate safety measures are taken.
"The Army and Raytheon know that mustard leaked into the site," he said Monday. "They owe it to the victims; they owe it to the community. Shut the place down and make it safe."
McCandlish also has filed a lawsuit against the Army and contractor Raytheon Demilitarization Co. in U.S. District Court in Portland, seeking compensation for what he said is permanent damage to the workers' health. McCandlish said the plaintiffs haven't determined how much they will seek.
He said the workers involved in the lawsuit believe in incineration and don't want to end the project, but they want workers to be safe. McCandlish called for better air monitors and protection for the workers, such as gas masks and antidote kits.
Army statements following extensive studies of the incident and the site concluded the unexplained sicknesses were likely the result of exposure to industrial chemicals or pepper spray.
"This is not true," McCandlish said. "(The Army's) investigation ... shows they have either lied about the truth or bungled it beyond belief."
McCandlish contends that Army data shows there were several positive readings of sarin and mustard in the air near the building where the sickened men were working. A July 27 letter from the Army's legal office states that many of McCandlish's claims of agent-filled air were based on sensitive machinery reading "innocuous compounds present in the ambient air."
Dave Bosley, a former millwright at the site, was one of four men who shared their experiences with media on Monday. Bosley, who has worked in construction for 17 years, said the fumes he breathed in on Sept. 15 were like nothing he had ever smelled before.
"After a lot of years of breathing in a lot of things ... you knew this thing was going to kill you unless you got out (of the building)," he said.
Like many of the sickened workers, Bosley suffers from asthmatic attacks that can be brought on simply from breathing in kitchen cleaning compounds. As if to illustrate the point, the meeting was checkered by coughing, both from the four men speaking and from people in the audience, some of whom also were sickened while working at the construction site.
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Defense Monday, requesting a "high level team" to investigate the group's allegations of an inadequate investigation.
Wayne Thomas, program administrator for the state Department of Environmental Quality's office in Hermiston, said his office has "re-reviewed" data taken on the incident last year, plus new data, and still concluded that chemical agent wasn't involved.
"We have not altered the conclusion that the four-agency team reached ... that there was not a chemical agent release here," Thomas said. "We stand by that conclusion."
But the several investigations conducted last fall don't satisfy McCandlish.
"We think it is a compelling case," he said. "We think the investigation was shoddy at best and wasn't based to find the answers."
The lawyer said the next several months will be spent preparing depositions for the eventual court date, which hasn't been set.