Attention is now turned to the radiation being released in Japan following the massive earthquake there this month. Unfortunately, Americans don’t have to look abroad to discover this kind of frightening scenario: This month, defense contractor Honeywell pleaded guilty to releasing radioactive material into the community of Metropolis, Ill. The episode shows, once again, the importance of a unionized workforce for providing for the safety of workers.
Honeywell International Inc. pleaded guilty two weeks ago in federal court “to one felony offense for knowingly storing hazardous radioactive waste without a permit in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).” The waste was stored in such a way that large quantities of radioactive KOH mud were leaching into the water stream of the nearby Ohio River. Honeywell was fined $11.8 million by the federal government.
At the Honeywell uranium facility, air emissions from the UF6 conversion process are scrubbed with potassium hydroxide (KOH) prior to being released into the atmosphere. As a result of this process, a type of radioactive mud settles on the scrubbers which have to be released. This material, called “KOH mud,” was stored in drums in the open air behind the uranium plant in Metropolis. According to Mitch Lagerstorm, a former Honeywell environmental safety officer at the Metropolis plant, from there it leaked into the Ohio River, which runs next to the plant. (The EPA did not find the radioactive waste leaked into the river, however.)
Honeywell knew that because the pH of KOH mud generated at the facility was greater than or equal to 12.5, it is classified as corrosive hazardous waste. Honeywell thus illegally stored radioactive material, and by doing so threatened the long-term health of the nearby community.
By the time EPA special agents raided the facility in April 2009, there were nearly 7,500 drums of illegally stored radioactive mud on site. As a result of the crackdown, Honeywell is being forced to store the radioactive mud in a way that is not harmful to the local community. Workers played a key role in making sure that mud wasn’t stored radioactively.
Over the years, workers notified Honeywell of the problem on many occasions. At a town hall meeting in 2007, John Jacobs, a union employee, confronted Honeywell CEO David Cote about the matter in person. An upset David Cote quickly ended the meeting when several workers said if something wasn’t done, they would notify the company. Workers later did play a role in blowing the whistle on the lockout.
Many in the union feel that this particular incident led to Cote’s desire to lockout union workers and attempt to bust the union at Honeywell.
This could explain why Cote has spent $60 million to keep the workers locked out, when it would only cost $20 million over the course of their contract to provide what the workers wanted. Cote might not want to have a unionized workforce at his uranium plant that could report potential safety violations to the authorities.
This week, as we watch events unfold in Japan and observe the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, it’s important we remember the role that unions have in preventing tragic accidents. Labor must make the argument that it’s in the public best interest for workers to have the freedom, through unions, to hold employers accountable.
About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times as well as Alternet, The Nation, The Atlantic and The American Prospect.
This blog originally appeared In These Times on March 22, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.