Union Blows Whistle, Honeywell Fined $12 Million
As radiation from Japan’s nuclear disaster appears in its drinking water and food, it’s sobering to be reminded that it doesn’t take a natural disaster to unleash radioactivity into the environment. All it takes is an indifferent corporation.
Honeywell International pleaded guilty in federal court March 11 to knowingly storing hazardous waste without a permit at its southern Illinois facility, a felony. Toxic uranium byproducts were held in 55-gallon metal drums. Workers said the radioactive, corrosive slurry started eating through the walls of the drums within months.
The company paid an $11.8 million fine and will be on probation for five years. No managers were charged.
The violations occurred at Honeywell’s uranium conversion plant in Metropolis, Illinois, where the corporation locked out 228 Steelworkers last June. Union members say they blew the whistle repeatedly, alerting regulators to the hazards years before any action was taken.
The Metropolis facility processes raw uranium into components for nuclear fuel. Since the lockout it has been operated by scabs, some of whom were coached by managers when they took the tests that qualified them to run the plant.
For the locked-out workers, the episode reinforced their belief that the best defense they and their communities have is a vigilant union.
The fine stemmed from Honeywell’s decision to stack up 7,500 barrels of toxic byproduct from the conversion process around the plant, roughly the size of a football field. The facility is near the Ohio River, which workers feared could become contaminated if toxins leaked.
Honeywell had previously recycled the “mud” byproducts, filtering out elements and reusing them. But Steelworker Stephen Lech said the company shut down the reprocessing unit in 2002, laying off workers.
Metal drums of the byproduct began stacking up around the facility. They were not intended for long-term storage of the highly corrosive material. Lech—a member of the plant’s emergency response team before the lockout—said workers soon noticed the solid yellow mud showing through the walls of the drums.
“We had a pretty good idea in the union that what the company was doing wasn’t right,” Lech said. “Every time we change something in the process, we have to go through lots of training. When we didn’t this time, we knew something was up.”
Twenty-seven workers from the plant have a cancer diagnosis, and about 42 have died of various cancers over the past 20 years. Part of the lore of the plant, workers say, is to expect that the job could take 10 years off their lives. Honeywell denies any connection between the production process and workers’ ailments.
A union member confronted CEO Dave Cote when he visited the plant in 2008, asking him about the corroding drums during an event broadcast simultaneously at other Honeywell facilities. The company quickly dropped a mention of the drum storage into a report to the Securities and Exchange Commission—but didn’t tell the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Justice, which later executed warrants to search the facility.
A contractor is now repacking the corrosive material in plastic and shipping it elsewhere.
Even as it paid out millions in fines, Honeywell patted itself on the back, saying its disclosure to investors proves it can self-police.
The union begs to differ, and has fought hard to ensure that Steelworker health and safety experts accompanied OSHA inspectors in investigations at the plant in recent weeks. Unions have the right to designate a representative to walk around with inspectors, but the company denied entry to several Steelworkers for weeks. OSHA finally headed to court, where a judge found Honeywell in contempt and ordered it to allow the walk-along.
Managers aren’t likely to admit when things are out of order, Lech said, and “replacement workers can’t be expected to know everything. Who knows what shortcuts they’ve been told to take?”
The union has estimated that 128,000 residents within a 25-mile radius could be “catastrophically impacted” if as little as one-sixth of the plant’s dangerous hydrofluoric acid gas were released.
A December release of hydrofluoric acid triggered the plant’s mitigation towers. They sprayed water for more than an hour to prevent gas from escaping the plant’s fence line. Honeywell said the incident showed its disaster-prevention systems worked.
“People in this community have learned they can’t trust this company,” Lech said. “We need these jobs, but ultimately, we are concerned about this community. This is where our families live.”