BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Amy Delcambre said she will always wonder if her husband Sean would still be alive today if better safety measures had been in place when he worked at the 403rd Maintenence Wing at Keesler Air Force Base.
“It’s hard. It really is hard and it’s hard to explain the why," she said in a Zoom interview from her home in Mobile, Ala. "You know, why did this happen?”
Sean Delcambre joined the Air Force Reserves in 2005 and served his entire career as an Air Reserve Technician at the 403rd. In 2018, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer known to be caused by exposure to hexavalent chromium, a key chemical found in the paint used on planes at the unit.
The father of three died in August 2019 at age 34.
Last year, a WLOX News Now Investigation reported on health problems at the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base. Delcambre was one of six Air Reserve Technicians who told us about safety violations that put their health at risk. Three of the airmen wouldn’t go on the record because they feared reprisal. One that did go on the air said he was forced out of the unit.
Those workers said the unit would not install needed safety equipment, including a proper clean room to allow workers to decontaminate their clothing after working with dangerous chemicals. The 403rd has announced they will install a new safety facility, eight years after it was first recommended.
A team of workers
Keeping the 403rd Wing’s fleet of Hurricane Hunters and Flying Jennies in the air takes a team of about 450 Air Reserve technicians.
Last year, WLOX reported that the 403rd’s leadership failed to respond to multiple warnings about hazardous conditions at the unit.
Reports of OSHA violations at the 403rd maintenance wing first surfaced in 2009 in internal memos obtained in our investigation.
Those memos noted the paint facility had been broken since 2008 and as a result Air Reserve Technicians spent their days blasting and painting airplane parts in an “open work bay” with “no control of particulates.”
Air Force records confirm those particulates contained hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing ingredient made famous in the movie Erin Brockovich.
Multiple documents called for a better decontamination facility beginning in 2012, it took until 2018 for the unit to formally call for a “clean room” to “reduce spread of CrVI (Hexavalent Chromium).”
Now, in 2020, the facility will finally be built.
Col. Jeffrey Van Dootingh is the current commander of the 403rd. He was not with the unit at the time of the OSHA violations, but was commander of Operations from 2012 to 2013 when the first requests for a clean room was made.
"It basically came from employees recommendations. Van Dootingh said in an interview last month. “They had some concerns.”
VanDootingh did not say why the action was not taken sooner.
“I met with all the folks who do this work in the fabrication shop," he said. “This was one of the concerns that they brought up and I asked how can we make our process better. They asked for a wash facility with showers and a washer and dryer.”
The clean room will also include a dedicated space to remove PPE after working with the paints that contain harmful chemicals, and a wind blast tunnel to remove additional particles.
All of those safety measures will help ensure that no member of the 403rd will spread dangerous chemicals around the maintenance facility or carry them home on their clothing.
Too little, too late
“I think it’s great that they’re doing it, but at the same time I just wonder why it wasn’t done sooner,” Delcambre said.
The 403rd installed temporary wash facilities for the air technicians to help prevent the spread of hexavalent chromium. Construction on the permanent clean room facility could begin as early as October.
WLOX attempted to contact previous commanders of the 403rd that were in command from 2008 to 2015. None that we were able to reach would speak to us. The Air Force Reserve Command would not facilitate any interviews with former commanders.
The six airmen from the 403rd who spoke with WLOX said they not only feared retribution for speaking out, but they also cited a lack of support from leadership on their health issues.
Col. Van Dootingh has said he doesn’t believe any airmen’s illnesses are linked to exposure to chemicals at the unit.
“The bottom line is an airman who claims that they have some medical issues as a result of their employment at the Air Force base does not make it so,” he said. "And to date, no airman with medical issues has met the proof that those issues are the result of their employment here. "
The Air Force Reserve Command maintains it’s up to the reserve air technicians to prove the link between the exposure and their illness. The command points to a 2019 OSHA inspection that showed the 403rd was in compliance, but OSHA never inspected the facility during the years the violations occurred.
“They knew that there were problems at the facility,” Delcambre said. “They knew there were broken mechanisms, they knew that there were a lot of issues that hadn’t been addressed.”
Because those issues were not addressed, she said, she is left to raise her three daughters alone, with the empty feeling of what her life with Sean could have been.