workers at a Beaverton toy factory
For years the water tower at Hall Street held drinking water contaminated by TCE.
TCE levels similar to Hall Street's have been recorded elsewhere in the United States, including at the Rowe Industries factory in Sag Harbor, Long Island, which manufactured electrical equipment. TCE from the factory contaminated drinking water for 75 people who lived nearby
TCE pollution near the
Tucson International Airport contaminated the water supply of several
thousand people in a largely Hispanic neighborhood. (For more information,
check out the
TCE belongs to a group of
compounds known as volatile organic chemicals. It is primarily used to clean
Surprisingly, of the dozen
After Mattel learned about
the contamination in its plumbing, engineers sampled the groundwater beneath
the factory. In November, TCE was detected in the groundwater at 18,600 parts
Under Oregon law, injured
Sorting out the contamination at Hall Street has required an army of professionals, each speaking their own specialized dialect. Typical techno-babble: "The basalt contained a matrix of very small plagioclase feldspar crystals that formed an interlocking network with considerable void space between the crystals (an igneous texture called diktytaxitic)."
A Civil Action, starring John Travolta, hits
Some 400,000 workers are exposed to TCE daily, but its use is gradually being phased out.
Across Highway 217 from the Washington Square Mall, the Hall Street toy factory stands vast and silent in the shadow of its water tower, a monument to a bygone age. Once as many as 1,200 workers toiled here around the clock, cranking out millions of View-Masters, Magna Doodles and Erector sets, to the delight of children the world over. But these days the hum of the assembly line is nothing but a memory.
In 1997, the plant was bought by Mattel, Inc., which decided to shift operations elsewhere. Now the only sound comes from the hiss of the steam radiators echoing through the cavernous gloom. All that's left is the factory's empty shell--and hundreds of feet below the ground, a plume of toxic chemicals.
Last March, in an extraordinary discovery that has received surprisingly little attention, Mattel learned that the water at its Hall Street plant was contaminated with an industrial solvent named trichloroethylene (TCE). Tests showed that Hall Street's private well, which for decades supplied most of the plant's water, contained TCE at 1,600 parts per billion--more than 300 times higher than the legal limit for drinking water set by the Environmental Protection Agency. This is among the highest levels of TCE in drinking water ever detected in the United States.
"The levels of contamination out there are staggering," says environmentalist Jane Haley, president of the board of the Oregon Center for Environmental Health, which is threatening to sue Mattel under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
News about the pollution at the Hall Street plant is bound to spread, in part because of the eerie parallels to the town of Woburn, Mass., where lawyers tried unsuccessfully to prove that a cluster of childhood leukemia cases was caused by TCE contamination in the water supply. The story gained national attention as a result of Jonathan Harr's bestselling book, A Civil Action, a gripping chronicle that has been made into a Hollywood movie starring John Travolta.
The levels of TCE detected at Hall Street are six times higher than at Woburn, and some of the people who drank the polluted water at the Beaverton plant have fallen seriously ill. But as was the case at Woburn, no one has shown that these illnesses are the result of TCE exposure. "We're where Woburn was at the beginning of the story," says Portland lawyer David Paul, who represents OCEH.
Mattel emphasizes that the risk is real but small. "If the experts are all right, none of our employees will have any problems," says spokesman Wiley Brooks. "But that doesn't mean it couldn't happen."
But in contrast to Woburn, where the source of the pollution was the subject of protracted legal wrangling, there is no doubt that the contamination at Hall Street came from the factory itself--and that the factory's owners failed to recognize the potential hazard for almost 30 years.
Starting in 1951, and continuing for more than a quarter of a century, the Hall Street plant used TCE for cleaning metal parts, primarily components of cameras and slide projectors. According to former employees, workers routinely disposed of TCE sludge by pouring it onto the ground outside the plant.
As shocking as it may sound, this was standard practice at the time. In fact, barrels of TCE arrived from the manufacturer with similar instructions for disposal: "Pour on ground away from buildings." Apparently, the belief was that TCE, a volatile organic chemical, would evaporate into the air.
By the late '70s, Hall Street was using 200 gallons of TCE every month. Eventually, for reasons not entirely clear, Hall Street hauled its spent TCE away for disposal elsewhere. In 1980, the plant's owner, GAF Corporation, phased out the production of cameras and slide projectors and stopped using TCE altogether. For the next 18 years, the industrial solvent was little more than a historical footnote at Hall Street.
What no one seemed to realize was that the TCE was actually sinking deep into the ground, poisoning the aquifer that fed Hall Street's well.
The restaurants, malls and office buildings that have since mushroomed around the Hall Street factory are all connected to municipal water, piped in from the Tualatin Valley Water District. But Hall Street drew most of its water from its own well, located on the factory grounds.
At least 13,000 workers drank that water over the years. After toiling on the production floor, where temperatures of 90 degrees were considered unremarkable, they quenched their thirst from the drinking fountains. They drank the water in their coffee and tea. They used huge quantities of it to mix up batches of brightly colored modeling dough, standing over giant vats and breathing in the vapors.
By 1998, Mattel was winding down its operations at Hall Street. As a result, Mattel's landlord, a firm by the name of Hall Street Associates, decided to take stock of its real estate. As part of an environmental site assessment, Hall Street Associates tested the water for volatile organic chemicals.
The bad news arrived on March 25, 1998--weeks after a wrenching round of layoffs. Tests confirmed that Hall Street's well was polluted with TCE at 1,600 parts per billion. Days later, the company's remaining workers watched as a row of tank trucks lined up to drain thousands of gallons of contaminated water from Mattel's landmark tower. That water--the water they used to drink--had to be hauled away and treated before it could even be poured down the drain.
Although Hall Street had tested its well water regularly for bacteria and heavy metals, it had never before tested for volatile organic chemicals such as TCE, even though the law in Oregon has required those tests since 1991. "Quite frankly, we missed it," says Hall Street's general manager Dan Nottage, who drank the water himself for 19 years. "Sad but true. We missed it. I wish we could turn the clock back."
In Oregon, water systems that serve more than 10 people for more than 60 days a year must regularly test for 84 separate contaminants, including TCE, and report the results to the state.
Dave Leland, who manages the state's drinking water section, says that despite the giant water tower looming over Highway 217, regulators never realized Hall Street had a private well. In fact, the state has no record of ever receiving any test results from Hall Street--for TCE, heavy metals, bacteria or anything else--even though this sort of routine reporting has been required for decades.
Leland has no idea how many other hidden wells might be lurking out there. "They're pretty hard to find," he says.
Those words are cold comfort to Walter Keith, 43. A tall, easygoing man with a quick smile and calloused palms, he lives on a quiet street in North Portland with a pickup truck in the driveway and a stack of firewood on the porch. He speaks warmly about Hall Street, where he worked for eight years--first in injection molding and later as a forklift driver in shipping and receiving--until he was laid off last February. Asked about his health, he pauses for a moment, then mentions only that he got skin rashes when he started work and that now his kidney is "sort of swelled up."
"He has cancer of the kidney," says his aunt, Maxine Williams, in a firm tone. "It has metastasized through his lung, spine and now his brain."
Reluctantly, Keith confirms the diagnosis. In 1992, he pulled a back muscle at work and was out for three weeks. After he went back to work, he felt pain and numbness in his right leg. Concerned the pain might be caused by his back injury, he went to the doctor, who told him there was no connection. The pain then shifted to his other leg. Finally, his doctor took an X-ray and saw a telltale spot--a tumor--on his tibia.
Further tests revealed a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his kidney. Now he has tumors in his lung, spine and brain. His tibia is so brittle that his doctors want to reinforce it with a metal rod. He has had to give up hobbies like bowling, chopping wood and working on cars. "All that's on hold right now," Keith says.
Last July, his doctor gave him just two more years to live. "I still feel healthy," he says with a shrug of his shoulders. "But in medical terms, I'm history," he adds, petting his dog, Miles, an aging miniature husky with a worn expression.
Keith reckons he drank about a gallon of water every shift he worked at Hall Street, but he has no idea if the TCE is connected to his cancer--and neither do his doctors. Although TCE can cause permanent organ damage, it is usually expelled from the body within 72 hours (unlike toxins such as lead, which stays in the body for years). None of his doctors is willing to venture an opinion, a situation which infuriates his aunt, a former nurse. "Here's a man who worked all his life, " she says. "Now he's on welfare and social security at 43."
Pat Schiffer was just 25 years old when she signed up at Hall Street in 1968. It was her first full-time job. "It was like one big family," she says. "No one ever quit. Whole families worked there when I first came. You'd find out the guy who delivered your supplies was married to the girl you worked next to." It was the sort of company that encouraged its workers to continue their education, even paying for classes if they got A's. She mostly worked in the creative department, doing graphic design for packaging.
Schiffer liked her job, but she never liked the water. "For years people were telling them there's something wrong with the water," she says. "It didn't taste right; it didn't smell right." At first she would fill up a thermos flask with water at home and bring it to work to make tea, but one day the thermos broke, so she switched to taking packets of chocolate-flavored coffee to cloak the water's taste.
In August 1997, Schiffer was diagnosed with a tumor in her kidney, which surgeons promptly removed. At the time, she had no reason to think that her illness might have any connection to the water at Hall Street. But last April, barely a month after she'd been laid off, she was jolted by a small item in the newspaper describing the contamination at the plant. "That question's been on my mind ever since," she says.
And there are many more such cases.
Susie Hough, 42, worked at Hall Street while she was pregnant. Every night her boss would bring over soup from the cafeteria--it was one of the only things she could keep down. Hough is healthy, but she suspects that her teenage son's neuromuscular problems could be related to TCE. Jeri Loudon, 39, was also pregnant with her daughter when she worked at Hall Street. Her daughter was born six weeks early. Could this have been because of the water? Kha Tran, 50, worked at Hall Street for three years until she was laid off in March. Now she worries if the TCE could have caused her chronic stomach pain. Truck driver Russ Dillon, 62, wonders if it caused nerve damage in his hands.
Surprisingly, of the dozen current and former Hall Street employees with health problems contacted by WW, none has plans to sue Mattel. There are two principal reasons. One has to do with the uncertainties of science, the other with the vagaries of law.
The first point is perhaps obvious. Just because some individual workers are sick, it doesn't mean the illness has anything to do with TCE--a point that workers themselves grasp all too well. "We all have health problems," says one, rather hotly. "We're getting older. But whether it's connected to the water, they'll never pin it."
This is the same issue that bedeviled the families of children with leukemia in Woburn. In concentrated doses, TCE is highly poisonous, capable of causing hallucinations, permanent neurological damage and even death. But little is known about the effects of chronic low-level exposure. There is considerable scientific debate over whether TCE should be classed as a carcinogen and at what level its effects may be felt. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) classifies TCE as a "probable human carcinogen," based primarily on animal studies in which rats and mice exposed to high levels developed liver or lung cancer. There is also some evidence that low levels of TCE can damage organs such as the liver, kidney and heart.
Government toxicologists who have examined the situation at Hall Street are usually careful to express concern but not alarm. "1,600 parts per billion is a level you definitely don't want in your water," says Dr. Robert Johnson, a medical officer with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in Atlanta. But asked about likely health effects, he says, "We hope to see none."
Duncan Gilroy, a toxicologist with the Oregon Health Division, echoes this assessment. He doesn't know if he would be surprised to see health effects. At the same time, he wouldn't be surprised if he saw none.
The only way to determine the true effects of the TCE at Hall Street would be to conduct an epidemiological study, a systematic investigation of the workers to see if they have more health problems than the population at large. But for several reasons, including a maddening bureaucratic dispute over whether the water at Hall Street constitutes an "environmental" exposure as opposed to an "occupational" one, the prospects for such a study look bleak.
The scientific verdict on Hall Street may never be certain. But lack of rigorous scientific proof has never stopped lawyers from pursuing that most American of innovations, the class action lawsuit (consider breast implants, automobile accelerators and the Woburn case itself). At Hall Street, however, there is another obstacle--the workers' compensation system.
If you got sick because of TCE in your drinking water at home, you could file a personal injury lawsuit against the company that polluted your plumbing. But if you were exposed at work, that's a different matter.
Under Oregon law, injured workers are simply not allowed to sue their employers for on-the-job injuries. Instead, they make claims through the workers' compensation system--a legal world unto itself, with its own rules, procedures and protocols. In workers' comp cases, there are no punitive damages, no awards for pain and suffering, no class action suits. Instead of a jury that might be swayed by the plight of an injured worker, each case is decided by a judge.
Given the scientific uncertainty about the effects of TCE, this legal arrangement makes such cases "tough as hell," says local lawyer Doug Swanson, who has represented workers exposed to TCE at other facilities. Without the lure of a big jury award to pay off the huge expenses necessary to win such a complex case, it seems unlikely that any advocate will don the mantle of Jan Schlichtmann, the flamboyant Massachusetts attorney who went bankrupt fighting the Woburn case.
The Hall Street saga has not been devoid of legal saber-rattling, however. In June, the Oregon Center for Environmental Health filed notice of its intent to bring a federal suit against Mattel for failing to test its water. Its goal is to "stop industry from looking the other way," says Portland attorney David Paul, who represents OCEH. "When you break the law, you're going to be held accountable. If Mattel doesn't get snapped for their permit violations, what happens to the next corporate citizen?"
Last month, Mattel agreed to pay a $20,000 state fine for omitting the tests and to produce an educational video and booklet for other errant well-owners--a penalty Paul deplores as insufficient for a billion-dollar company. "This is exactly what Mattel wants," he says.
Technically speaking, Mattel could be fined $25,000 for each day since 1991 that it and its corporate predecessor Tyco, Inc., failed to test for TCE, which would amount to roughly $9 million a year.
The extent of Mattel's legal liability at Hall Street remains unclear. Nonetheless, most observers agree that the company, which inherited a crisis whose roots go back almost 50 years, has so far responded in an extraordinary manner.
To coordinate its response, Mattel hired a Seattle crisis-communications expert by the name of Wiley Brooks. A former newspaperman, Brooks handled public relations for Jack in the Box after tainted hamburgers from the fast-food restaurant chain killed two children and poisoned hundreds of people in 1993. He also helped a hospital in Washington counter rumors that patients were dying from poor care and that the hospital had covered this up.
With Brooks' help, Mattel has organized more than 50 meetings with current and former workers, many of whom were immigrants, to keep them up to date with developments. It has put up an extensive Web site about the contamination, together with information in Spanish, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Korean and Russian. It has developed a mailing list of more than 13,000 employees who worked at Hall Street and has taken out ads in local newspapers in an effort to reach more. The company provides translation at all its meetings.
Mattel has also developed a special series of free diagnostic medical tests, available annually to anyone who's ever worked at the plant. It has even developed a series of tests for the children of any women who were pregnant while they worked at Hall Street. "We've had people tell us we're crazy to bring it up," says Brooks. "But we want to do the right thing."
So far, only 270 workers have taken the tests, but the potential price tag for this effort alone could amount to $4.5 million a year.
Government regulators are full of praise for Mattel's efforts. "Mattel's response is better than we've seen anywhere else in the country," says Johnson of ATSDR.
"We've really been impressed by Mattel," agrees OHD's Gilroy.
"I think Mattel is doing an excellent job," says Bruce Gilles, the Department of Environmental Quality's project manager assigned to the site. "Usually companies try to avoid responsibility rather than deal with it head on."
This forthright response has helped prevent an environmental tragedy from becoming a public relations disaster, even though Hall Street will continue to pose a major environmental headache for many years to come.
Although the groundwater in the area around Hall Street is severely contaminated, no TCE has been detected in the plumbing of other buildings nearby. Certainly, shoppers at Washington Square or Powell's Books need not fear the water as they slurp down their Orange Juliuses or sip their iced lattes.
But if you stand outside the Hall Street factory, in the shadow of the water tower, and watch the endless traffic inch past on Highway 217, it's hard not to wonder which seemingly innocuous detail of life in the '90s may one day return to haunt us.
Originally published in Willamette Week, January 6, 1999
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