City Reporter 

City Reporter

Not In My Neighborhood

Residents fight Velsicol's hazardous-waste storage.

By Janel Davis

Last week, residents of the Crump neighborhood in North Memphis continued their fight against hazardous wastes during a public hearing with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).

The hearing was to reevaluate Velsicol Chemical Corporation's hazardous-waste permit for storing wastes on-site at the Douglass community plant.

In addition to protesting the waste storage, residents expressed concern over the number of railroad cars parked on tracks near the plant. "We have three railroad crossings in the Douglass community. If there was a major explosion and the trains were passing through, the community would have only one way out. The flames would overtake us," said organization director Balinda Moore in a statement before the meeting.

Ron Ridings of Velsicol said the residents have no need to worry about possible pollution and safety issues. "The permit will be for a reduced amount of waste materials. Our previous permit was for [approximately] 19,250 gallons, or 350 drums, in waste space. The new permit will be for 2,200 gallons. The reduction is due to economics. We don't have the sales that we used to have. Also, Velsicol is always working to reduce hazardous waste."

TDEC storage permits last 10 years and must go through the requisite public- hearing and comment stages before the department makes its decision. "Comment stage ended September 23rd," said Ridings. "The TDEC usually renews [the permit]. We have no reason why they wouldn't renew it."

Although Ridings said no reactive wastes will be stored at the plant, Moore is still opposed to the company getting the permit. "[Velsicol] still has too many toxins in the neighborhood," she said in an interview. "Even if they reduce their waste amounts, I have no confidence in the company."

Moore's organization and the local chapter of the Sierra Club have long opposed Velsicol's operations (which they argue have led to an increased amount of chemical pollutants in the air and water), its storage of hazardous materials, and its lack of community intervention. A main source of contention has been the company's hazardous-waste incinerator, which it recently decided to continue operating amid community protests.

Velsicol produces chemicals used in making adhesives, sealants, flame retardants, and insecticides. This year, the company did not rank on the annual list compiled by the Sierra Club of the "Terrible Ten Toxic Polluters" for Shelby County.

Chemical Confusion

Newspaper employee claims cleaners made him ill.

By Mary Cashiola

Marcus Mays is the kind of guy who can be described as "beefy." Standing just under six feet tall, he looks sturdy, well-built, with the outline of rippling muscles visible even through his street clothes. A former bodybuilder, Mays now carries around a suitcase full of inhalers and medicines. As he talks, large drops of sweat roll down his face.

For the last 11 years, Mays, now 31, has been working for The Commercial Appeal. He started in the mailroom and worked his way to general pressman in 1997. In June, he went on sick leave, he says, because the chemical used to clean the presses made him ill.

"One day, I was at home and I was tired, so I had lain down, and my breathing just cut off," he says. "I just couldn't catch my breath. I was reaching for the phone to call 911, but by the time I got to it, I caught my breath, so I put on my clothes and went to my doctor's office."

Some time earlier this year, the pressmen at the CA began using a new blanket wash, a chemical sprayed onto the blanket (a cylinder cover made of rubber or plastic) after each press run, to clean off ink and paper-lint buildup. The pressmen get a five-minute break, while the wash is "fired," to prevent overexposure to the chemical.

The new wash seemed to cause the pressmen some problems. Mays says he began to get ill from the fumes in early February. At times, the odor was overwhelming, and one night in early spring, the fire department came out and cleared the entire press area.

Randy Peeler is a chapel chairman with Local 231-M, the Graphic Communications and International Union, at The Commercial Appeal. He's been working there for 17 years and is one of the union members who has been negotiating with the company since the pressmen's contract expired in February 2000. "I was there that night," he says. "We had just fired a new batch of blanket wash. Maybe it had been fired earlier that day. The odor was extremely strong. A lot of our members were dizzy and nauseous. I was a little sick myself."

Peeler doesn't work on the side of the pressroom where the wash was fired and walked over after he heard reports of the odor. He says he was only there for a minute before getting dizzy and light-headed. He says the fire department cleared the room, did some air-evaluation tests, and asked if any of the workers needed medical attention.

"That night, a lot of people felt ill," says Peeler. "One guy developed a respiratory infection right after that, and he's never had one before." According to Peeler, the man has since lost 30 pounds, and his doctors still don't know why.

One 10-year veteran pressman, who wishes to remain anonymous because he fears retribution from his employer, says that after they used the new blanket wash, he broke out in red rashes on his arms and became short of breath.

"The inside of my arms was burning," he says. "I didn't put anything on it until I went to the doctor. Since then, it went away. But it will go away, and then it comes back."

Mays sent an e-mail to the company's safety director, filed a grievance with the union, and also filed a complaint with the Tennessee Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health division about possible overexposure. The complaint resulted in an inspection on April 30th, and area supervisor William Hensley said there was no cause to issue a citation. Hensley's report said that the chemical had a low toxicity and the short time of exposure limited the possibility of overexposure. However, during the time of the complaint, Hensley wrote that "the ventilation system for the 'pressroom' was not performing properly. This has since been repaired and more air changes are occurring in the work area." The company also discontinued its use of the problem blanket wash.

At first, Mays' doctor gave him medication for his respiratory problems and elevated blood pressure, and he went back to work. As his symptoms persisted, however, his doctor urged him to work in another area of the company or find another job.

Under the previous labor contract, an employee who has worked at the CA for 12 months or more is entitled to one week of sick and accident pay for every six months of continuous service, up to 26 weeks. Thinking he had six months built up, Mays went on sick leave in June in an attempt to regain his health. But he says the company has withheld all of his sick pay, and he has had to borrow money from family members.

"I provided them with everything they wanted," says Mays of the documentation the company needed to process his sick leave. When he first went to his doctor earlier this year, he got permission from the company's human-resources department. Later, he says, "they wanted me to go to another doctor, but it's not an independent doctor. It's their doctor."

Mays has been tested for sarcoidosis, a disease characterized by nodules in the lungs and lymph nodes, and has seen numerous specialists, and been to both Baptist Hospital and the Med for treatment. His X-rays show two spots on his lungs which, Mays says, one doctor told him might be fluid but another said might be calcium buildup. No one has yet been able to tell him exactly what's wrong.

Warren Funk, the CA's general counsel and human-resources director, could not be reached by press time. In a letter to Mays dated August 22nd, however, he wrote that "the examinations and test results that have been conducted so far do not support the finding expressed in notes received from your doctor."

Funk wrote that he had scheduled Mays for an appointment with an independent physician. However, Mays says when he called that doctor's office, they had never heard of him. In another letter from Funk, Mays is reminded that his employer can require him to obtain a second opinion at the employer's expense.

Mays also filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in July, and in early September, Ronald Hooks, NLRB regional director, sent both parties a memo deferring the case to the grievance/arbitration process.

"Before, I was a bodybuilder; I was a health nut," says Mays. "I can't say that I had something to do with it. I don't smoke or drink."

Randy Peeler agrees: "Mr. Mays was a very athletic guy. Now, from what I understand, he just lays around the house. The basic next step is to go to the company to meet over the grievance. Right now, they're refusing to give anything to Mr. Mays. There's a lot of confusion."

On Hold

City school system debates cell-phone policy.

By Mary Cashiola

Cellular phones are almost everywhere: People talk on them while in line at the grocery store, they ring in restaurants and movie theaters, and it's almost rare to see someone driving without one. At the moment, portable phones are not allowed in the Memphis City Schools (MCS), but that might be changing.

MCS commissioner Patrice Robinson, chair of the board's policy committee, told commissioners Monday night the committee would readdress the district's cell-phone policy, since several parents came forward to complain.

Starlet Evans spoke for herself and four other parents, asking the district to reconsider its ban on cell phones. Evans' 14-year-old son, who attends school outside their home district, participates in a number of extracurricular activities. "I don't know what time to pick him up," said Evans. "Practice varies from day to day. Phones aren't always available. He either waits for me for an hour or I go an hour and a half early and I wait for him."

Besides the added convenience of the cell phone, Evans spoke about the security and sense of relief parents feel when they are able to connect with their children at any time.

The issue of cell phones, originally lumped into a ban with beepers and pagers as tools of drug dealers and gangs, came up last year when a White Station student accidentally left her dad's cell phone in her backpack. After it rang during her calculus class, she got an automatic board suspension.

More recently, Anabell Turner's son and his girlfriend also got suspensions for his having a phone at school -- in the glove compartment of his car.

"He was bodily searched," Turner told the board Monday. "He was pulled out of the car. When I saw it, the glove compartment was on the floor; it had been pulled off its hinges." Turner's son is involved in athletics and also works after school; Turner herself goes to school at night and likes knowing they can reach each other on their cells. "The policy in place is obsolete," she said.

Commissioners expressed concern over Turner's son's incident, questioning their legal rights over the search and wanting to pay for the broken glove compartment.

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