Widow of Keesler 403rd worker not satisfied with Air Force’s answers
BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - The past month has been beyond difficult for Amy Delcambre and her children.
Delcambre said she and her three daughters are still coming to terms with grief and anger after the death of her husband Sean in early August.
Amy and Sean believed his cancer was a direct result of exposure to the potent carcinogen hexavalent chromium on the job at the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base.
“Often Lillyanne says ‘I miss daddy, I want daddy.’ Eilee says the same thing; ‘I want daddy,’” Delcambre said in an interview last week. “They miss their loving and attentive father.”
Delcambre has seen letters written by the office of Air Force Reserve in response to the Congressional Investigations her husband and others at the 403rd requested.
“My immediate reaction was disagreement,” she said. “It framed things in a way that was a little bit more favorable than the reality.
“I think they are trying to keep it as quiet as possible. I kind of think they are putting their head in the sand on it. I’ve heard from people who work there, that while there’s inspections and things like that going on in that shop, no one has addressed the issue. The elephant in the room is still not being addressed.”
That elephant is the paper trail documenting violations of safety policies from January 2008 to at least May 2012. During that time, workers sanded and sprayed airplane parts for the Hurricane Hunters and Flying Jennies in an “open work bay (outside entrance of the paint booth) with no control of particulates.” according to a 2015 Keesler document.
Since our investigation began, the Air Force and OSHA have conducted a series of tests at the 403rd. Those tests, the Air Force said, showed that “interim control measures put in place were meeting the intent of OSHA regulations.”
However, a report by the 81st Medical Group says a test done on May 29 “showed a presence of CvVI” - hexavalent chromium - on the break room tables of the Fabrication Flight. The report had the sentence underlined and in bold letters.
The report on those tests was issued a month before the Office of Air Force Reserves sent letters to Mississippi and Alabama congressional leaders saying “no contaminates were found during this inspection.”
In an email, Keesler officials told us the May 29 test “found no contamination” then went on to say there were “trace amounts of contamination” that was due to the manufacturing process for the testing wipes.
However, information from OSHA and other sources contradict that assertion. OSHA has no regulatory limit regarding surface contamination of hexavalent chromium.
“I have no faith in anything that comes out of Keesler in terms of what they say they’ve found and tested because it contradicts physical evidence that I’ve seen,” Delcambre said.
Delcambre is disappointed at the lack of action by the Air Force.
“You would think somebody would look at this and say ‘not on my watch.’”
At one point, Sean and Amy Delcambre thought that would happen after a communication from the Secretary of Defense.
“We were naively and briefly very excited thinking, ‘hey somebody’s going to do something about this, we’re going to get help and support’ but then crickets chirped, and nothing happened. And then it became apparent that what they meant was make this shut up and go away," she said.
In an email and video statement sent Thursday, 403rd Wing Commander Col. Jeffrey Van Dootingh reiterated that OSHA inspectors have not placed any restrictions on the current flight fabrication process.
“If I thought for one second we were putting Airmen at risk, I would immediately shut down fabrication operations and personally padlock the door,” Van Dootingh said.
Delcambre said she believes the work environment that has evolved at the 403rd has created fear among the workers and that needs to change.
“This is an opportunity for them to do what’s right and create a precedent to facilitate a positive change where they’re going to remediate this issue, they’re going to take care of their people, and they’re going to be the leadership for policy change,” she said.
Keesler officials met with OSHA on Wednesday but said it will be another 75 days before OSHA’s final report is issued. Until he sees that report, Dootingh believes the unit has done what it can.
“When it came to their safety, I wanted to be completely transparent throughout this process. To that end, I directed a stand-down for the Fabrication Flight, and I brought in experts in both bioenvironmental and in occupational safety to answer all their questions and address any concerns they might have.”
Despite her frustration, Delcambre is determined to find something positive in her husband’s death.
“I am absolutely not going to stop until something good comes out of this. I want to say to my daughters yes your daddy died, but we were able to create change that saved other people’s lives," she said.
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