More than 50 former miners and management personnel attended a meeting Monday evening to discuss joining a class-action lawsuit alleging Alcoa was negligent in burying hazardous waste at a strip mine in Warrick County.
"I haven't seen this many people since the last big strike we were on," said Charlie Hill, a United Mine Workers Local 1189 official.
Attorneys for former miner Bil Musgrave distributed sign-up sheets to the miners and discussed the lawsuit with them in a private meeting at the union hall after asking reporters to leave for that part of the discussion. Musgrave was diagnosed with terminal bile-duct cancer in 2000 but recovered after a liver transplant at the Mayo Clinic.
The lawsuit alleges that between roughly 1965 and 1979 at least five kinds of hazardous wastes from Alcoa's manufacturing process were disposed of at the former Squaw Creek Mine, which supplied the company with coal to power its smelting operation. The mine was a joint venture between Alcoa and Peabody Coal Co. The wastes included a sludge containing chromium hydroxide, wastewater with coal tar pitch, drums containing coal tar pitch, spent potlining and chromic acid.
The wastes may have contained a wide number of chemicals, some of which the union has identified as hexavalent chromium, hydrofluoric acid, anthracene, chyrsene, phenols, chromic acid, fluoranthene and cyanide.
The Material Safety Data Sheets provided to the miners by Alcoa last year as part of a voluntary health screening process indicate that federal authorities consider only the coal tar pitch and chromic acid to be cancer-causing. Numerous miners Monday complained to union leaders that they had been unable to contact the University of Cincinnati's Center for Occupational Health to schedule health assessments or that the screenings had seemed brief and not thorough.
"I think it is unfortunate that those things are being expressed at this point in time," said Sally Rideout Lambert, Alcoa spokeswoman. She said the company has communicated "fairly frequently" with local mine leaders about the assessments and provided them with updated toll-free telephone numbers. She said the program is respected and nationally known.
It is unknown how much chromic acid, containing hexavalent chromium, may have been disposed of at the site, since it would have been a part of the chromium hydroxide sludge. The sludge is a product of rendering the chromium in the acid into a less hazardous variation of waste, according to the lawsuit.
Lambert said the company no longer produces some of the wastes. The sludge is now disposed of in a hazardous waste landfill near Indianapolis, she said, while the spent potlining is treated at an Alcoa facility in Arkansas.
Large time gaps exist in the mining records for periods when strip mining there was in continuous progress and open pits were exposed, according to an Indiana Department of Environmental Management document.
Attorney Terry White asserted that more waste was buried at the Squaw Creek Mine than state health officials were aware of. The state has been working with Alcoa to develop a plan for testing and monitoring the area. An investigation of the site by an Alcoa-hired contractor is scheduled to begin this month, said Amy Hartsock, IDEM spokeswoman. It will include assessments of the pits but also other areas. That information will be used to develop any additional cleanup plans if necessary, she said, and sampling will be required on a semiannual basis for five years.
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