Honeywell workers warn community about plant risks

Earlier this week, union workers warned residents of Metropolis, Illinois and Paducah, Kentucky that the safety of their communities was at risk because the Honeywell uranium processing plant in Metropolis was being operated and maintained by temporary workers.

“We’ve become gravely concerned for the safety of the greater Metropolis-Paducah community, especially since the Dec. 22 release of hydrofluoric acid, the NRC citations, and the pending OSHA inspection of the Honeywell plant,” said Darrell Lillie, United Steelworkers Local 7-669 president, representing 230 workers locked out by the company since June 28.

Honeywell locked out its union workers when they would not accept a new contract that contained cuts to their health care benefits and those of retirees. Health care coverage is important to Honeywell workers because the plant produces uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a radioactive substance that can cause cancer, mutations, kidney damage, and reproductive problems.

On Tuesday USW 7-669 held a press conference to announce the publication of a special report entitled Communities at Risk about the dangers posed to the people who live within a 25-mile radius of the plant.

Back in June when the company locked out its unionized workers, it replaced them with temporary workers. The plant temporarily shut down operations until its temporary workers could be trained. It started up again about two months later.

Communities at Risk reports that since the plant reopened in September there have been two serious accidents. On September 5, shortly after the temps started operating the plant, an explosion occurred after hydrogen and fluoride, two chemicals used to process UF6, were accidently recombined. The explosion was loud enough to be heard in the community and 911 operators received calls about it.

On December 22, hydrofluoric acid, which reacts with water to cause a toxic and corrosive gas, was released into the air. Fortunately, the gas was contained, but if had escaped into the community it would have been a disaster.

Illinois State Representative Brandon Phillips, who spoke at the press conference, said that “it’s not a question of if, but when a disaster will occur.” Phillips said that it was irresponsible for Honeywell to keep operating the plant with temporary workers. He called on the US Nuclear Regulatory Agency to shut down the plant until Honeywell ends its lock out.

Local 7-669 members have years of experience working with the deadly chemicals at the plant. Over the years, they have taken the initiative to improve safety at the plant. The temps on the other hand have only a couple of months of training and a little more than four months on the job. 

Their performance on tests taken before the Nuclear Regulatory Agency would permit plant operations to restart is not reassuring. In fact, the NRC cited the company for helping the temps take their tests.

The NRC said that temps “became confused” during their test and were given assistance by the company. They also had to be coached by management on procedures and the location of certain components. Some temps were allowed to be in the test room while others were taking the test, so that they could know what would be on the test.

Honeywell called Local 7-669’s press conference and report a publicity stunt. But local residents have expressed their concerns about the safety of the plant while it’s being operated by temps. “I’m a little concerned about the temporary workers, how well qualified they are to do the job?” said Guy Wilcox after the December gas leak. Wilcox lives near the plant.

“I’d feel better if the guys on the outside (Local 7-669 members) were in,” said Larry Douglas, Massac County Director of Emergency Management.

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