Article courtesy of Charlie White | July 10, 2014 | The Courier-Journal | Shared as educational material
The union that represents hundreds of workers at the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Processing Center in Jeffersonville, Ind., said it is concerned about long-term health risks after employees were exposed to a dry-cleaning chemical that may cause cancer in drinking water.
“Nothing is being done to address ongoing employee exposure concerns,” said Victoria Martin, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1438. Martin issued a statement Wednesday after the concerns were brought to light in a Courier-Journal article earlier this week.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management first notified the Census Bureau in September 2013 that it needed to take action following four consecutive quarterly test results that showed the man-made compound — tetrachloroethylene — exceeded the maximum contaminant level of 5 micrograms per liter of water.
The chemical is a volatile, likely carcinogenic compound used for dry-cleaning clothes that studies show may increase risks of lung and bladder cancers when consumed in water.
“As a result of that notice the Census Bureau provided bottled water to its employees and notified its tenants that they needed to provide bottled water to their employees. The Census Bureau also began the process to hire consultants to develop plans for hooking up to city water lines and obtaining all necessary approvals and authorizations to implement an acceptable design,” said Barry Sneed, a spokesman for IDEM.
However, Martin said the “lack of any noticeable progress during the past year in correcting this situation is seriously affecting employee morale and trust in their employer.”
Martin said the decision to switch water service from its old wells to Indiana American water lines was made nearly a year ago, yet the work originally scheduled to be completed this summer has been delayed until later this year.
“This extreme delay in providing clean, safe drinking water for employees is unacceptable. Because of the number of federal, state, and local governments and service providers involved in securing a suitable water supply solution at the facility and for the impacted community, employees at the U.S. Census Bureau see little action in acquiring safe, clean drinking water,” she said.
David Hackbarth, Census Bureau director, maintained in a statement Thursday that employee safety is its top priority.
“We take all employee concerns very seriously,” he said.
Hackbarth said the Census Bureau worked to keep employees informed of actions it took and water-quality test results.
Drinking water fountains and ice machines were shut off. The Census Bureau contracted for bottled water dispensers until a more permanent solution was put in place, though some employees complained those dispensers were growing mold.
The union echoed concerns with the water cooler cleaning schedules, saying “after nine months of continuous daily usage, the water vendor replaced the coolers in late June after the union and employees raised concerns.”
Hackbarth said all water dispensers are replaced with cleaned and sanitized dispensers every six to eight months.
“In line with this regularly scheduled cycle, our vendor is currently replacing the on-site dispensers with freshly sanitized dispensers. To allay employee concerns, the vendor is replacing all dispensers regardless of whether they are due for replacement or not,” he said.
In addition, Martin said Census Bureau workers continue to wash their hands using contaminated water. The complex is also heated with steam heat produced by its boiler system, which uses the contaminated water when in operation from roughly October through March of each year. Additional reports reviewed by the union have revealed that steam produced from the contaminated water can lead to additional exposure to the dangerous chemical.
The chemical was also found in tests dating back two decades, though levels didn’t exceed the maximum for four straight quarters, as IDEM requires for action. The source was determined to be a dry-cleaning business across 10th Street, which hired a consultant to clean up the contamination.
The Courier-Journal previously reported that in 1992, the EPA began regulating tetrachloroethylene, setting its maximum level at 5 micrograms per liter or 5 parts per billion. It required all water suppliers to test for the chemical between 1993 and 1995.
Records from IDEM’s online “Virtual File Cabinet” show Census Bureau water taken from the site’s four wells — near Buildings 102, 103, 104 and 105 — was tested several times by Clarksville-based Environmental Consultants Inc. Results from November 1994 found levels of tetrachloroethylene of up to 5.2 micrograms per liter.
The 1994 tests also found other harmful chemicals, such as similarly high levels of dichloroethylene and trichloroethylene, two other volatile, man-made compounds known to damage the liver or lungs or possibly cause cancer.