• print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

Workers Say They Breathe Polluted Air at “Green” Insulation Facility

Share this post

Kingspan employees in Santa Ana, California are demanding improved health protections—and a fair process to organize.

Mindy Isser | Author | Common Dreams

As the acceptance of climate change becomes increasingly commonplace, more and more companies will be created or adapted to ?“fight” or ?“solve” it — or, at the very least, minimize its effects. Kingspan Group, which began as an engineering and contracting business in 1965 in Ireland, has since grown into a global company with more than 15,000 employees focused on green insulation and other sustainable building materials. Its mission is to ?“accelerate a zero emissions future with the wellbeing of people and planet at its heart.” 

But workers at the Kingspan Light + Air factory in Santa Ana, Calif. don’t feel that the company has their wellbeing at its heart?—?and they say they have documented the indoor air pollution in their workplace to prove it. Differences between Kingspan’s mission and its true impact don’t stop there, workers charge: One of its products was used in the flammable cladding system on Grenfell Tower, a 24-floor public housing tower in London that went up in flames in June 2017, killing 72 people. Kingspan has been the target of protests in the United Kingdom and Ireland for its role in the disaster. Both Kingspan workers and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire have called on the company to put public safety over profits.

Since the 1990s, union organizers say there have been multiple attempts from the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) union to organize employees at Kingspan, but none were successful. The company says its North America branch employs ?“1,600 staff across 16 manufacturing and distribution facilities throughout the United States and Canada.” Workers at the Santa Ana plant are tasked with welding, spray painting and assembling fiberglass to produce energy-efficient skylights. During the pandemic, when workers say Covid-19 swept through the facility, employees reached back out to SMART?—?not just because they wanted to form a union, but because they grew concerned about what they say is poor air quality in the facility. 

While SMART provided support for their campaign for clean air, the workers took control: In the summer of 2021, the Santa Ana workers came into work armed with monitors to measure indoor air pollution. Their goal was to measure airborne particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller (PM 2.5). Such fine particulate matter constitutes a form of air pollution that is associated with health problems like respiratory and cardiovascular issues, along with increased mortality. The workers found that the average PM 2.5 concentration inside the facility was nearly seven times higher than outdoors. (To put that in perspective, wildfires usually result in a two- to four-fold increase in PM 2.5.) The majority of monitors found PM 2.5 levels that would rank between ?“unhealthy” and ?“very unhealthy” if measured outdoors, according to Environmental Protection Agency standards, the workers reported. 

Because this is the air workers were breathing in for 40 hours per week, in October 2021, they went public with both their campaign to form a union and their fight for a safe workplace?—?a campaign that continues to this day. 

According to Jorge Eufracio, a welder who’s worked at Kingspan for six years, ?“The campaign started for safety, better wages, and respect. We signed a petition for workers at Kingspan, and we had a delegation give it to the boss. The petition was about our whole campaign?—?including a fair process to organize.” 

Kingspan employees told In These Times that management has ignored their plea for a fair process to organize, but in response to pressure has made some strides regarding health and safety, although the changes are inadequate. Jaime Ocotlan, a welder who’s been at the company for two years, said, ?“We have seen some small changes but we believe it’s not enough. They have given us some PPE, and recently they have started to give us some ear plugs. When they say they’re going to give us PPE, it needs to be fire safe. It’s not enough yet. It’s a band-aid. We need stuff that’s protective in the long run.” 

Over Zoom, Ocotlan showed In These Times how shards of fiberglass get stuck in his work clothes, leaving small holes in the fabric and making it possible for the shards to reach his skin. 

The workers have partnered with environmental justice organizations in order to pressure Kingspan to clean up the facility. An open letter signed by environmental groups in the Santa Ana area and nationwide states that ?“Kingspan is not an appropriate source for continuing education courses or sponsorships of events for the green building community, including those that touch on fire safety.” There are 45 signatories, led by the Labor Network for Sustainability, which brings together unions and union activists to fight for environmental justice. 

A coalition of environmental activists and workers is coalescing. Both Eufracio and Ocotlan told In These Times that most workers at this Kingspan facility live in Santa Ana, and mentioned that one coworker lives directly behind the facility. Ocotlan said workers are concerned not only for themselves but ?“for the kids and the elderly. The contamination is something you can’t see but we breathe every day, and causes a lot of pulmonary problems.” 

Ron Caudill, vice president of operations at Kingspan North America, told In These Times, ?“Kingspan has a long history of dedication to a safe working environment for all employees. In fact, as of today, it has been over 600 days since we had a lost time injury or illness, and we have never had an illness related to air quality.”

But workers at Kingspan are not only concerned with their own situation at work, or even at home: They’re also thinking of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. This past December, workers held a candlelight vigil in solidarity with a concurrent march in London to honor the 4.5 year anniversary of the fire. The British public inquiry into the fire found that Kingspan’s insulation product Kooltherm K15 was used in the cladding system on the Grenfell Tower. According to Kingspan, K15 only made up about 5% of the insulation layer of the system. But the U.K. government’s Grenfell Tower Inquiry unearthed a number of allegations concerning the company’s role in the fire, including the that workers kept secret the results of fire safety tests. Going forward, the government now demands that Kingspan and other insulation companies contribute a ?“significant portion” to the approximately £9 billion ($12 billion) in remediation costs.

Kingspan workers and victims of the Grenfell Tower fire are more than 5,000 miles apart, but they say they share a common interest: safety. Eufracio told In These Times, ?“We’re supporting Grenfell.” 

He added, ?“We want to avoid what happened there.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on 03/03/2022.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


Share this post

A Wisconsin Hog Farm Would Produce 9.4 Million Gallons of Manure a Year. Nearby Residents Live in Fear.

Share this post

Image

Crawford County is up against Roth Feeder Pig II, which would be the largest hog CAFO in the state and could permanently pollute local aquifers.

CRAWFORD COUNTY, WIS.?—?When a neighbor tells Carl Schlecht and Kat Tigerman about an industrial hog farm planning construction on the narrow ridge above their home, they think it’s a joke. The retired couple lives along the Kickapoo River in the heart of southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, one of the most rugged and ecologically sensitive regions in the state, and a massive industrial polluter moving in was too much to believe. 

Now, Schlecht says, ?“It feels like an existential threat.” 

For the past two and a half years, hundreds of residents, farmers and environmental advocates in rural Crawford County have fought to stop or regulate the proposed farm, Roth Feeder Pig II. It would house more than 8,000 hogs, doubling the size of its sister operation to become the largest concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) for hogs in Wisconsin, and generate 9.4 million gallons of manure annually to be spread on nearby fields. 

The Crawford Stewardship Project (CSP), a collective of environmental scientists and advocates, warns the waste would endanger local waters. According to the CSP, the region’s sloping topography and fractured bedrock, along with an inadequate spreading area exacerbated by increasing rainfall, makes the area highly susceptible to water contamination. 

“Our aquifers in the Driftless Area?—?once they’re polluted, they’re polluted forever,” says Kelvin Rodolfo, CSP volunteer and science professor at the University of Illinois Chicago. 

When the CAFO was proposed, the CSP rallied neighbors and took their concerns to the township and county boards. In December 2019, the county enacted a one-year moratorium on CAFO construction and tasked a special committee with researching potential impacts. The resulting 222-page report found that CAFO manure runoff could render groundwater undrinkable. 

The study points to Kewaunee County in northeast Wisconsin, a geologically similar region saturated with dairy CAFOs. There, 30% of private wells are unsafe to drink from because of high levels of nitrate and bacteria, such as E. coli and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). CSP, which runs a water monitoring program in Crawford, reports having already found MRSA in streams at Roth Feeder Pig I. 

Air pollution is another concern. In North Carolina, a state dominated by industrial hog farming, the National Academy of Sciences found air emissions from swine CAFOs are linked to roughly 89 premature deaths annually in Duplin County. Overall, the report found farm pollution causes more than 17,000 U.S. deaths per year, outnumbering deaths from coal plants.

The Crawford County report also notes stench, infrastructure damage, zoonotic disease and plummeting property values as potential impacts. “[CAFOs are] deadly, pretty much all around, ” says Janet Widder, a farmer serving on the report committee.

Wisconsin state law, like its 2004 livestock facility-siting law, has paved the way for easy CAFO expansion, and some Crawford County residents fear the new CAFO is inevitable. ?“There are people who right now are trying to sell their house and [move] out,” says Forest Jahnke, CSP program coordinator.

According to attorney Adam Voskuil at Midwest Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit environmental law center, “[The siting law] removed a significant amount of local control.” Instead, there is a ?“one-size fits all” standard for CAFOs, and local governments are limited in enforcing anything stricter.

Per the law center, the siting law ?“has been used by the livestock industry to accelerate the growth of factory farming.”

Howard Roth, would-be owner of the proposed CAFO and a fifth-generation hog farmer in Crawford County, served as president of the Wisconsin Pork Producers Association, which has lobbied for deregulation, including the siting law. When reached for comment, Roth claimed he has taken the required precautions to prevent soil pollution and is not worried about air and water pollution. When asked about CSP finding antibiotic-resistant bacteria in his groundwater, Roth claimed his farm is not the source?—?because ?“only 1%” of his animals receive antibiotics.

Despite ongoing opposition, Crawford County’s one-year CAFO moratorium expired in December 2020. The county— among the poorest in the state— argued it couldn’t afford the research required by the siting law to try to prove the farm would pose health risks. Furthermore, the county fears Roth would litigate any potential regulation, another financial burden.

Just months prior in Polk County, Wis., industry groups sent a threatening letter to the county board hours before a vote on a CAFO moratorium extension there. The letter alleged an extension would violate the siting law, for which board members could face felony charges. While the Midwest Environmental Advocates has since argued that wouldn’t be the case, the board ended the moratorium.

The letter had a chilling effect on the Crawford County board, too, which tabled regulation discussions and suspended public comment. Now, community hope rests on intervention from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Throughout June, hundreds asked the DNR to issue an environmental impact statement, which could allow the agency to impose stricter regulations on the farm (such as requiring the installation of groundwater monitoring wells, making it possible to hold the farm liable for pollution).

Since 2014, Tyler Dix, permit coordinator at the DNR, only recalls two of Wisconsin’s 318 CAFOs having an environmental impact statement. Neither moved forward with construction.

Regardless of the outcome, some residents say, the fight is not over.

“When I’m not crying about it, it’s just staggering to me that this is what we have to fight,” Kat Tigerman says. ?“We’re not giving up the fight. Because we can’t.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Hannah Faris is associate editor at The Wisconsin Idea, an independent reporting project of People’s Action Institute, Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund and In These Times.


Share this post

Workers Want a Green Economy, Not a Dirty Environment

Share this post

To justify withdrawing from the Paris climate change accord, President Trump said during his press conference yesterday, “I was elected to represent the city of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” From terrible experience, Pittsburghers know about pollution.

Before Pittsburgh’s renaissance, the streetlights Downtown frequently glowed at noon to illuminate sidewalks through the darkness of smoke and soot belched from mills. White collar office workers changed grimy shirts midday. To the west 130 miles, the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland burned – several times.

Pollution sickened and killed. It triggered asthma and aggravated emphysema. In Donora, just south of Pittsburgh, an air inversion in 1948 trapped smog in the Monongahela River valley.  Poisonous steel mill and zinc plant emissions mixed with fog and formed a yellow earth-bound cloud so dense that driving was impossible. Within days, 20 people were dead. Within a month, another 50 of the town’s 14,000 residents succumbed.

Some viewed pollution as a blessing, a harbinger of jobs. Air that tasted of sulfur signified paychecks. For most, though, pollution was a curse. It meant scrubbing the grime off stoops daily. It meant children wheezing and gasping for air. It meant early death.

The preventable deaths are why my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), has fought against pollution for decades, long before scientists conclusively linked it to global climate change. That connection made combatting pollution even more urgent. It crystalized our obligation to save the planet for posterity. Signing the Paris Climate Accord last year committed the United States to preserving what we all share, the water and the air, for our children and their children. Donald Trump’s withdrawal from that agreement moves the United States, and the world, back in time to rivers so toxic they burn and air so noxious it poisons. Trump’s retreat makes America deadly again.

Don’t get me wrong. The USW supports job creation. But the union believes clean air pays; clear water provides work. Engineers design smokestack scrubbers, skilled mechanics construct them and still other workers install them. Additional workers install insulation and solar panels. Untold thousands labor to make the steel and other parts for wind turbine blades, towers and nacelles, fabricate the structures and erect them. Withdrawing from the Paris Accord diminishes these jobs and dispatches the innovators and manufacturers of clean technologies overseas where countries that continue to participate in the climate change agreement will nurture and grow them.

Eleven years ago, the USW joined with the Sierra Club to form the BlueGreen Alliance because USW members believe Americans deserve both a clean environment and good jobs. The USW believes Americans must have both. Or, in the end, they will have neither.

The Alliance, which now includes more than a dozen unions and environmental groups, has collaborated with industry leaders to find solutions to climate change in ways that create high -quality jobs.

It’s an easy sell to many corporate leaders. Shortly after the election last fall, hundreds of companies and investors, including the likes of Nike and Starbucks, signed a letter asking Trump to abandon his campaign rhetoric about withdrawing from the Paris Accord.

In April, more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies, including giants Google, BP and Shell, also wrote Trump urging against reneging on nation’s climate commitment. They said that because the agreement requires action by all countries, it reduces the risk of competitive imbalances for U.S. companies that comply with environmental regulations.

More recently, Apple CEO Tim Cook told Trump that disavowing the accord would injure U.S. business, the economy and the environment. Tesla CEO Elon Musk told Trump that if he turned his back on the accord, Musk would resign from two White House advisory boards.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, also urged Trump to keep the United States’ commitments under the 195-nation pact, rather than joining Syria as an outlier. Syria and Nicaragua are the only non-signatory countries, but Nicaragua declined to sign because its leaders felt the accord was not strong enough.

The streetlights never switch on at noon in Pittsburgh anymore. The Cuyahoga River now supports fish that live only in clean water. Donora’s sole reminder of those dark days in October of 1948 is a Smog Museum.

But the United States remains the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas polluter. It has an obligation to lead the world in combating climate change. Great leaders don’t shirk responsibility.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on June 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Leo Gerard is president of the United Steelworkers.


Share this post

Radiation in the Homeland: Honeywell’s Guilty Plea Shows Importance of Unions

Share this post

mike elkAttention 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.)

Last year, crosses were placed near the entrance to Honeywell's uranium conversion plant in Metropolis, Ill., to represent past employees who died of cancer. Workers represented by the United Steelworkers continue to be locked-out by the corporation.   (Stephanie S. Cordle/Post-Dispatch)
Last year, crosses were placed near the entrance to Honeywell's uranium conversion plant in Metropolis, Ill., to represent past employees who died of cancer. Workers represented by the United Steelworkers continue to be locked-out by the corporation. (Stephanie S. Cordle/Post-Dispatch)

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.


Share this post

Subscribe For Updates

Sign Up:

* indicates required

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.