Dangers in the Air - Part 1: Documents show Keesler workers were exposed to dangerous chemicals
BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Some maintenance workers at the 403rd Air Wing at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi said they have become seriously ill from exposure to hazardous materials because of poor safety practices. The workers, and documents from Keesler, indicate base management was aware of the problems as far back as 2009, and either ignored them or was hampered by military bureaucracy to solve them quickly.
WLOX News Now spoke to six of these employees; three didn’t want their names used for fear of retribution from superiors at the 403rd. One of the employees said he was threatened with demotion if his complaints continued. Instead of backing down, he and others filed requests for a Congressional Investigation through Sen. Roger Wicker’s office.
Scroll down to see the full WLOX investigative series
Workers said they turned to the senator and a veterans’ organization for help after they felt their problems were being ignored.
"It just kind of feels like they're waiting for us to die to make it go away," said Joshua Powell, one of the affected workers.
One of the workers, Sean Delcambre, died on Aug. 5 after his cancer spread so fast, doctors could not stop it.
Larry McDonald of Gulfport, like many of the maintenance workers at the 403rd, is both a full-time civilian employee and a member of the unit as a reservist. McDonald, 40, has been stationed at Keesler since 2010, working as a sheet metal mechanic in a cluster of buildings that documents show have been plagued with safety hazards in violation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration(OSHA), Department of Defense and Air Force rules. Those violations are detailed in a series of base Work Request forms filed since 2009, and reports filed by the base’s Bioenvironmental and Occupational Health departments and the 81st Medical Group.
The documents show workers in these buildings are exposed to hexavalent chromium, lead, strontium chromate, and methalyene chloride, all dangerous substances. Some are known carcinogens.
Hexavalent chromium is the highly toxic chemical that was at the center of environmental controversy depicted in the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, featuring Julia Roberts.
McDonald said he began to have health issues in 2012. By 2014, those symptoms became much worse, and a doctor told him he had several masses in his sinuses and a deviated septum.
The OSHA fact sheet on hexavalent chromium states that “repeated or prolonged exposure can damage the mucus membranes of the nasal passages and result in ulcers. In severe cases, exposure causes perforation of the septum.”
At least one of McDonald's coworkers we talked with has similar symptoms.
The exposure to the chemicals happens when workers sand paint off of C-130Js and airplane parts and repaint them. 1,500 people work for the 403rd, including 450 in the Maintenance Group.
OSHA rules define what safety equipment must be worn and what levels of exposure are acceptable.
Another worker who has become sick said the unit "turned their back" on members of the 403rd.
Joshua Powell was transferred to the 403rd in June 2015 from Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas. Powell worked in the ISO hangar, away from the buildings where McDonald worked. However, Powell said he had to go to that cluster of buildings on a regular basis and ate in the break room there.
Sean Delcambre, who also worked in building 4301, was diagnosed with stage 3-B Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December 2018. In June, he was diagnosed with 30-CD positive anaplastic lymphoma. Delcambre died in August.
Delcambre, who joined the Air Force on 2005, said in April that he never had any reason to think that proper safety procedures were not being followed. Years later, he started to hear about exposure issues at other bases. Then his son was stillborn in December 2014.
Delcambre had passed all the physicals to become a pilot or navigator, but cancer put that dream on hold.
"It certainly was a shock to have a disease (ulcerative colitis in 2016) come up like that at 31 years old, and a year later get sick again and to find out I had cancer at 33. Before that I was otherwise healthy," he said.
Records of a September 2015 inspection show airborne levels of hexavelant chromium in Building 4301 were almost three times above Occupational Environmental Exposure Limits.
Those levels could have existed for at least four years, McDonald said, because sanding and priming were being done in open areas of the complex or just inside open bay doors with little or no containment of materials. That practice was cited in the October 2015 reports that described toxic dust escaping into other parts of building 4301, including the break room where workers gathered for lunch.
Keesler documents show that in September 2009 until at least June 2012, the walk-in blast booth, Building 4302, could not be used because of electrical problems, moving the work into open areas of the complex.
Powell and McDonald said supervisors didn’t follow the proper OSHA and Air Force procedures after that 2015 inspection, which include giving exposed workers medical exams to test for contamination. OSHA regulation states “The employer shall make medical surveillance available at no cost to the employee, and at a reasonable time and place, for all employees... whenever an employee shows signs or symptoms of the adverse health effects associated with (hexavalent) chromium VI exposure.”
OSHA rules also say that workers exposed to hexavalent chromium should be given an medical evaluation within 30 days of initial assignment. That test would create a baseline for future health tests. Delcambre, Powell and McDonald said that was never done.
A response from Keesler in July stated that they began blood tests on workers exposed to the chemical in December 2017, but exposure levels at the maintenance facility have never required additional testing.
McDonald said he began to document problems after safety standards were changed multiple times, and he didn't feel that unit leadership was properly addressing the problems. He said when he transferred to Keesler from Dover Air Force Base where he did the same kind of work, he could tell safety practices were different.
McDonald and Powell said they pointed out deviations from safety practices they had followed at the other bases to their supervisors. McDonald said he was told there wasn't enough money to fix the problems. One of those supervisors, Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Cantrell, said he has no recollection of either man pointing out safety deficiencies. Cantrell is the fabrication flight chief for the 403rd.
Multiple work request documents dating back to 2009 signed by Cantrell, however, show that he was aware of the need for work to correct safety issues.
A comparison of safety standards at Dover and Little Rock Air Force Bases show similarities, but also marked differences. Dover stated they use HexOff -- a product designed to remove hexavalent chromium -- wipes and soap to remove any remaining contaminants from workers after they have removed their Tyvek suits. Little Rock uses a "one-way traffic system" to ensure that workers only exit through their clean area. Little Rock also has a laundry facility "solely dedicated to laundering workers' clothing and towels." Dover does not have laundry facilities available because "laundry facilities are not required."
Col. Robert Stanton, who became vice commander of the 403rd in July 2017, said he was unaware of any illness among workers until several of them filed requests for congressional inquiries in January. According to Delcambre, leadership at the 403rd was well aware of his illness because he was taking time off to receive his chemotherapy treatments.
Stanton said in an April interview: "Those few who have made claims that they have contracted illnesses in relation to the work environment, we have encouraged those folks to seek the medical assistance here on base. So we’ve had those conversations with our folks. Our supervisors have asked them to work with the medical professionals here to start that process to determine if there is a connection.
"We're still in the determination (phase) to see if there is a link between the illness and the environment that is presented here."
Stanton said that any health issues would have come up during workers’ annual health check-ups. Two years before Stanton came to the 403rd, the flight surgeon for the 81st Medical Group noted in McDonald’s annual Occupational Medical Exam that he “has medical issues that may be occupationally related.”
That should have triggered a series of additional medical exams, according to OSHA standards.
Powell and Delcambre said the 403rd supervisors were aware of their health issues also. All three men said they were not provided with those exams. Instead, all three said they have paid for their own medical care.
In 2017, McDonald filed for worker’s compensation, but was denied.
McDonald contacted Sen. Roger Wicker’s office in January to request a formal congressional investigation. At least two other workers at the 403rd said they have filed similar requests through Wicker’s office. In February, Wicker’s office confirmed to WLOX News, “Senator Wicker is aware of these reports and is seeking more information.”
Prior to those requests, McDonald said, nothing had been done in response to his complaints. Around the same time, WLOX made multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to Keesler for additional information related to the workers’ accusations. Responses to those requests have been slow, but we were given a tour of the building complex in April and were able to speak to unit leaders from the 403rd, including Col. Stanton.
"The process is challenging, the process of maintaining the airplanes, especially the paint removal and the things it involves, the chemicals and the extensive requirements," Col. Stanton said during that interview. "So we will continue to work that with the mindset that we have to keep the mission going."
After almost ten years of collecting documents, seeking relief through the base chain of command and paying for his own medical expenses, McDonald turned to Kevin Cuttill of Crusaders for Veterans for help.
The organization provides support for veterans who are struggling to navigate Department of Defense mazes. In January, Cuttill sent a letter to leaders at Keesler Air Force base, including the commanders, of the 2nd Air Force, 81st Training wing, 81st Medical Group and the 403rd Wing.
Cuttill’s letter stated that his group was not looking to file a lawsuit, but wanted to work together with Keesler officials to find a solution to “make our client whole and to prevent future liabilities for our young new recruits.”
Keesler declined to meet with Cuttill. Instead, they sent a representative from the base’s Judge Advocate Office to meet with McDonald. In that meeting, McDonald said that Lt. Col. William Deitch threatened him with demotion.
McDonald said he told Deitch, “We shouldn’t have to choose life or career.”
According to McDonald, Deitch responded that he understood his frustration, but warned McDonald “not to start a fire in my living room and go around and start losing stripes.”
Keesler leaders confirmed to WLOX News that Deitch met with McDonald, but described the meeting as “non-contentious.” Keesler and the Judge Advocate Office did not specifically deny McDonald’s claim. They also stated that it was the first time any member of the Judge Advocate team became aware of McDonald’s health issues. McDonald said a JA representative was in a February 2016 meeting about the issue.
In 2012, a new paint booth was installed, correcting some of the OSHA violations. That was four years after records first noted the “large paint booth is currently inoperable.” Still, records show the new paint booth did not have a proper clean room to prevent contamination from spreading outside the building.
Records also show that beginning in March 2012, a month before the new paint booth was completed, the first of several requests for an adequate clean room was filed by supervisors in the 403rd Maintenance Group.
Another report said workers used an air hose to blow contaminants off their protective suits in an open area, further spreading contaminants in the facility. That is a specific violation of OSHA rule 1910.1026(h)(3)(ii).
Workers said they routinely went home with chemical residue on the clothes they wore under protective Tyvek suits. OSHA regulations say no contaminated clothing should leave the work place, though it does not specifically state that there should be a laundry facility on site.
"At the time, when the new paint building was constructed (completed in May 2012), it was sufficient," Cantrell said of the shower adjacent to the paint booth, but it has since then been "deemed too far away from the hazardous process" by OSHA.
Regulations on hexavalent chromium, however, have not been changed by OSHA since 2006 according to a OSHA spokesman.
A Hazard Abatement Plan is now in place to build a new clean room, including laundry facilities, adjacent to the bead blaster building and the paint booth.
Master Sgt. Cantrell said that work is likely years away.
"It's a continuous battle to try to get the resources that you need," Col. Stanton explained. Requests, he said, get "racked and stacked," meaning there are more requests than there is money. Requests are prioritized by someone higher up the command chain, Stanton said. "It takes years sometimes to get forward progress in some of these."
Before transferring to Keesler, Powell worked with an active duty unit at Little Rock Air Force Base doing the same airplane maintenance work that he did for the 403rd. He said safety regulations were always followed at Little Rock, but supervisors at Keesler put getting repairs done quickly ahead of following safety regulations.
When he pointed out differences, Powell said he was told " 'We don't do it this way down here.' So my outspoken nature kind of put me on a bad boys list, and I sensed the whole atmosphere at the 403rd maintenance unit changed."
Master Sgt. Cantrell said the base used “interim measures to minimize exposure, but we still got the mission done.”
Powell now has avascular neurosis, a deterioration of bones that affects his hip, shoulder and back, which he believes is a result of his year-and-a-half of exposure to contaminants. At age 37, he needs a shoulder replacement. Powell said his medical issues cost him his job when he tried to return to work at Little Rock AFB.
Powell said he knows both his civilian and military careers are over because of his illnesses, but he worries about his fellow airmen.
"That contamination in those levels that were reported (in 2015) didn't happen overnight," Powell said. "That's been an ongoing thing."
“It could just be a big coincidence that five or six of us under (age) 40 are severely ill,” said Delcambre in an April 2019 interview. “But then, you’re looking at five or six out of 20 that have worked there over ten years.”
Powell said he would like to see everyone working at the 403rd Maintenance Group unit tested for exposure so they can be treated now instead of after showing signs of illnesses related to chemical exposure.
In a statement issued in May, Keesler leaders said an independent inspection of the facilities was done and “it was determined that the interim measures currently in place are acceptable to continue the mission.” WLOX has made a public records request for that report, but it has not yet been provided.
The key question is whether the workers' illness is directly linked to their work environment. Keesler officials maintain there is no evidence of a link. Workers say Keesler never did the proper testing required by OSHA to make the link.
When his health issues prevented him from performing the physical duties of his job at the 403rd, McDonald was reassigned to different locations beginning in June 2017. A report issued that same month from the 81st Medical Group’s Chief of Aeromedical Services said, “(McDonald) does report a number of chronic or recurring medical issues that may have been triggered and may also be exacerbated by the exposures within the Structural Maintenance work center, although this is not definitively a causal relationship. However, it does appear that his symptoms are strongly associated with his physical presence in the Structural Maintenance work center. Additionally, his civilian doctors have more than once recommended avoidance of industrial work areas, and I concur with these recommendations.”
In August 2017, two months after he was moved out of the facility, McDonald filed a worker’s compensation claim for his medical bills. That claim was denied in January 2018 saying “medical evidence does not demonstrate that the claimed medical condition is related to the established work-related event(s).”
In a May statement, Keesler said they have conducted an independent inspection of the facilities and have put "interim control measures" into place to address concerns. They said they are also reviewing health and safety claims made by unit members.
Powell and McDonald say they are angry the unit didn't show more concern for their health over the years.
"I think that's an integrity issue." Powell said. "The (Air Force) Core Values say integrity in all we do, (but) they're not following that."
Despite what the workers say is overwhelming evidence - backed up by Keesler’s own records - base officials continue to resist offering any help.
In an email sent to WLOX before his death, Sean Delcambre summed up his view. “It seems that KAFB is doing what they can do to protect themselves, and isn’t yet interested in hearing our side of the case or looking at all of our evidence.”
"We want to find out if there really is an issue here within this wing," Col. Stanton said in April. "The most valuable resource we have is the people, and we want to make sure that we are maintaining a healthy environment for those folks."
Powell disputes that assertion.
“They didn’t care about my family, they didn’t care about my kids, they didn’t care about me. They didn’t care about my other wingmen that were injured also. They didn’t care about us.”
This investigative series by WLOX focuses on maintenance workers at Keesler Air Force Base who say they have become seriously ill after exposure to hazardous materials due to poor safety practices. Read and watch the other parts in this series below:
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