Tuesday, December 20, 2005

McWane's Latest High Crimes

When Santa sits down to decide who's been naughty and who's been nice, McWane and its subsidiary Atlantic States Cast Iron Pipe Co. will be in for a major lump of coal.

Atlantic States is on trial in New Jersey for a variety of environmental and workplace crimes. McWane, you may remember, is the company made notorious for its workpace safety and environmental crimes, first publicized in a 2003 New York Times/Frontline series. The most disturbing thing about this story and all the other McWane stories (see the list at the end of this post) is not so much what we know about McWane's crimes, but all that we don't know about what is going on in other workplaces across the country that OSHA (or the New York Times) never has a chance to get to.

Tom Quigley of the Easton, PA Express-Times is covering the trial. You really need to read all the articles to get the full flavor, but here's a taste of Atlantic States' high crimes and misdemeanors.

  • Federal prosecutors allege a March 19, 1998, oil slick on the Delaware River stemmed from large oil puddles and other sources within the Atlantic States plant.
Isabel Mendoza said he suffered serious burns on one hand while working near the foundry's' huge production oven. He said he later hired an attorney to help him file a worker's compensation claim.

But Mendoza said Prisque told him he would only get $700 or $800 in the settlement.

"He said 'What are you going to do with that money if you don't have a job,'" Mendoza testified.

Mendoza said he understood Prisque's words to mean he'd be fired if he pursued his claim. Mendoza told jurors he called his attorney and canceled the claim.
  • Plant managers ordered workers to lie to OSHA inspectors:
Mendoza said the former plant manager also ordered him to lie to a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigator after a co-worker was injured on June 25, 1999, while operating a saw used to cut the big pipes.

After the injury occurred, Mendoza was told to wear a hardhat with a face shield, goggles, safety glasses and gloves while operating the saw, he testified. He said after the injury, a wire mesh was added to a safety shield between the operator and the saw.

Prisque told Mendoza to tell the OSHA inspector that operators always wore the protective safety equipment and that the wire mesh on the shield was in place at the time of the accident, Mendoza said.

He told jurors he lied to the investigator as ordered. "I wanted to keep my job and put food on the table," he said.

Defense attorneys on Thursday cited reprimands issued against Mendoza for failing to abide by the safety rules in place at the foundry. Mendoza admitted he did not wear safety equipment and said the equipment made if difficult to see.
He said everyone at the plant did it and workers would quickly put the gear on when they saw a manager come by. Then they simply removed it.

"It was a joke," he said.

Donning safety goggles and a hard hat with a safety shield, O'Reilly strolled in front of jurors as he questioned Mendoza about the company's rules requiring workers to wear the equipment.

"You can wear it," Mendoza said, "but then you can't work."

(Note: Reread the above paragraph and then think about Senator Michael Enzi's (R-UT) newly introduced OSHA deform legislation that would penalize workers for not wearing personal protective equipment like goggles.)

Robert Owens described the day a blade from a cutoff saw broke off and struck him on the head while working at the Atlantic States Cast Iron Pipe Co. in Phillipsburg.

Owens told jurors Monday during the ongoing Atlantic States trial that he was cutting pipe when the injury occurred. He said the next thing he remembers is regaining consciousness as workers picked him up off the floor with blood running down his face and a throbbing sensation in his head.

"I couldn't see out of the left eye," he said. He now has a prosthetic eyeball that replaces the eye he lost in the June 25, 1999, accident at the foundry.

"I always say if I got a million dollars tomorrow I still wouldn't get my sight back," the 57-year-old Stroudsburg resident said after testifying. Owens said another plant employee walked him outside and then drove him to Easton Hospital in a pickup truck.

Owens said he lost his eye in the accident and also suffered nerve damage and a head injury that led surgeons to put two plates in his head. Owens testified that he was working as a relief man in the foundry's finishing department when the accident occurred.

The job required him to fill in at various work stations as employees took their breaks. One of those stations involved operating the cutoff saw.

He said a safety shield designed to protect workers from flying debris was always too dirty to see through and he had to bend and extend his head beyond the shield to see. Owens said he also couldn't wear the safety goggles supplied by the foundry because they always fogged up. He told jurors he often had to dodge flying blade parts when operating the saw.

"I would basically have to step to the side or get out of the way the best way I could," he testified.

He said the saw's 24-inch blades would gradually get smaller as a result of cutting the pipes and often shatter. Owens said he noticed the blade was small when he stepped in to relieve the cutoff saw operator about noon the day of his accident.

Defendant Craig Davidson, the finishing department superintendent at the time, discouraged workers from using too many saw blades, Owens told jurors. He said Davidson told him the blades cost $100 apiece.
  • Atlantic States let oil, water and other material raining down from the casting machines wash into a storm drain that leads to the Delaware River. Some of the liquid was emptied into holding tanks that would overflow and spill onto the ground, then run into a stormwater drain leading to the Delaware River. In addition, plant managers would order employees to empty a pit full of oil and water by running a hose out to an area near a railroad bed by the foundry and pumping it onto the ground.

  • Atlantic States employees were regularly ordered to take steps to skew the results of smokestack emissions testsconducted by state and federal environmental inspectors. When the inspectors were doing air monitoring, cleaner plate and structural steel was melted in the furnaces instead of the dirtier scrap iron and old cars that were normally melted in the furnaces.
    McWane Inc., Atlantic States' Alabama-based parent company, sent a representative to the Phillipsburg foundry tell the foundry's foremen and supervisors exactly what to do when an inspector from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration paid a visit to the plant.

    "Take them to a secluded room away from the facility and call a supervisor," is the instruction Houston said he and others who attended an hour-long meeting received from the McWane official.

    Houston told jurors the goal was to "hold them off until a supervisor arrived." Then it would be left to the supervisor to "handle" the OSHA inspectors, he said.

    Over the past year: McWane attorneys reached an out-of-court settlement with the widow of a Northampton County man killed in a forklift accident at the Atlantic States plant, was ordered to pay a $5 million fine and complete a $2.7 million environmental project for violating the Clean Water Act and discharging polluted wastewater into a creek from its Birmingham, Ala., plant. Three McWane executives were sentenced to probation and fines and two of the executives were also sentenced to home detention. Meanwhile, McWane's Tyler, Texas, Tyler Pipe pleaded guilty to two felonies and agreed to pay a $4.5 million fine, Pacific States Cast Iron Pipe Co., a McWane division in Provo, Utah, and two executives were charged with conspiracy, violating the Clean Water Act and submitting false statements to the government, and finally, Union Foundry Co. in Alabama, also a McWane division, drew $4.25 million in criminal fines, community service and probation after a guilty plea was entered on the plant's behalf to illegal treatment of hazardous waste and worker safety violations that resulted in an employee's death.

    Related Stories