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UNDER A CLOUD

Once Surrounded by Asbestos, Now Surrounded by Their Fears

Some former Union Carbide mill workers worry that exposure to the mineral harmed them. The company cites a lack of evidence.

September 25, 2004|Lisa Girion | Times Staff Writer

King City, Calif. — Art Valdez spent 26 years working in the dust in the nation's last asbestos mill, pulling down $17.85 an hour before the place shut down last year.

He had a pension and five weeks' paid vacation. He had health insurance for his family. He could afford to give cars to his two boys, visit friends in Texas and take his wife to Denny's as often as he wished.

"I didn't know what asbestos was," he recalled recently. "I thought that was the best job ever."

He didn't fret when the bagging machines spewed powder all over him, or when he drove home with his maroon Silverado covered in white residue. He didn't think much about the sludge cake he tracked into the house on his steel-toed boots or the dust that clung to his black hair and scattered when he hugged his kids.

Even after learning about the sometimes fatal hazards of asbestos, Valdez didn't imagine that it might damage his lungs or mark him for cancer. The mill bosses told him that the kind of asbestos Union Carbide Corp. scooped out of the Diablo Mountains north of the Central California town of Coalinga wouldn't hurt him, he said, and he believed them.

The workers who milled Union Carbide's trademarked Calidria asbestos, Valdez said, "took the word of the company from Day One."

That is, until recently.

In several trials across the country, makers of products containing Calidria, their workers and their customers have accused Union Carbide of wronging them. They have raised questions as to what Union Carbide really knew about an asbestos that one of its employees described, in the words of an internal 1974 report, as "harmless." In turn, a small but growing number of mill hands have come to feel haunted, fearing that the work they did could end up killing them.

Over the decades, 450 men and women worked at the mill near King City, a town of 11,000 on the banks of the Salinas River. Many of them still live here, 30 miles from the mountains where Union Carbide's chrysotile asbestos was mined in what today is a government-designated asbestos hazard area, where visitors are cautioned to avoid inhaling dust.

"I'm scared," said Alice Rodriguez, whose husband, Roy, was a mill mechanic for 31 years and now makes a living fixing cars. They raised four children in their King City home, and she often cared for their six grandchildren there. "You don't know how many times they picked up their papa's boots and put that white crunchy stuff in their mouths."

What angers the former mill hands is that Union Carbide may have kept them in the dark about what it knew of Calidria's potential dangers, including the lung damage suffered by laboratory rats in Union Carbide's own tests in the 1960s.

Valdez, a tall man comfortable in boots and Wranglers, is apparently healthy at age 52. But he can't stop worrying about whether he and his friends have time bombs in their lungs. Since the mill closed last year, he has become something of an activist, a role he never expected to play.

"What if we get sick and die of cancer?" he said as he walked along the railroad tracks where trains loaded with asbestos once rattled toward Los Angeles. "God forbid."

The Company's Position

Union Carbide contends that recent research shows that, unlike those of other forms of asbestos, Calidria's fibers are short enough to be easily expelled from the respiratory tract and lungs before causing damage.

In fact, in defending itself against people's claims that Calidria in their homes or workplaces scarred their lungs or gave them cancer, the company has asserted that its asbestos couldn't be the culprit because none of the King City mill hands has ever been determined to have an asbestos- related disease.

It might not be so simple, however. Company documents disclosed in lawsuits in Georgia, Texas and Florida indicate that Union Carbide doctors saw symptoms possibly associated with asbestos-related disease in King City workers on about three dozen occasions. At least three workers have died of cancers that may be associated with asbestos, though in each case other factors, such as smoking, could be to blame.

In any event, mesothelioma, a fatal cancer, strikes as many as 50 years after a victim's initial exposure to asbestos. The legacy of the King City mill, which opened in 1963, might not be known for decades.

"This is just the beginning," Alice Rodriguez said, "of a whole lot of wondering about what the hell happened here."

Insatiable Appetite

In 1957, a prospector for Union Carbide, a chemicals company that produced the first antifreeze and portable batteries, discovered an extraordinary patch of what's known as mountain leather sandwiched between layers of serpentine, the California state rock. The company staked its claim near the 5,164-foot-high Santa Rita peak in the Diablo Range.

Union Carbide reckoned that it could mine what it saw as a mother lode of asbestos for 4,000 years without hitting bottom. Even now it's considered the world's largest cache of asbestos.

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