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.
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.
“TURNED THEIR BACK”
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.
ABOVE THE LIMITS
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.