Lawsuit Proceeds, and We Return to the Mercurial Trail

Wednesday, July 27, 2016, 5:39 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger and Ann Nichols

Photo courtesy City of East Lansing

In February of last year, ELi broke the story of nine City employees suing East Lansing over possible exposure to mercury and asbestos at our wastewater treatment plant. The nine are seeking damages as well as reimbursement for costs and attorney fees related to the case.

The plaintiffs’ mercury exposure claim relates to a spill that occurred at the plant in November 2013. It was not reported to the authorities until four months later, and only at that point did the City begin to take action to conduct a proper cleanup. The asbestos exposure claim relates to a seven-year gap between when a City-hired contractor documented extensive asbestos at the plant and when the City finally notified workers of that asbestos and took direct protective action.

There’s not much question that these things happened; the City has paid fines for these violations and worked to remedy the problems. But the lawsuit is not a slam-dunk for the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit complaint contends that City administrators knowingly endangered workers. Specifically, it states that the City “recklessly disregarded the health and safety of workers and disregarded government regulations as to the reporting of the mercury exposure and the required and necessary cleanup of mercury.” It also contends that the City “intentionally and with malice exposed workers” to asbestos “for seven years with actual knowledge of the significant dangers of asbestos exposure.”

Legally speaking, the nine plaintiffs in this case face a lot of hurdles to winning their case. It can be almost impossible to prove direct harm from mercury exposure in a case like this, when there is a big delay between exposure and testing, and also difficult to prove harm from asbestos, especially in the short term. (We’ve previously asked physicians, in conjunction with this story, to explain mercury and asbestos risks to our readers.)

Moreover, it can be very difficult to prove intent to harm. Merely demonstrating negligence of the workers’ rights won’t be enough for the plaintiffs to win.

Our own interest in this story as ELi reporters is not primarily whether the plaintiffs can win—although, if they can, it is likely to cost the City’s taxpayers a fair bit of money, and indeed already is costing City taxpayers in substantial legal fees, and City finances are a perennial interest to ELi’s readers.

Our interest is primarily in understanding what happened to lead to what are fairly extraordinary events—a significant mercury spill being dealt with in sharp contrast to the applicable regulations, and potential asbestos exposure going unmanaged for so long, in a City where not only is the populace quite sensitive to environmental concerns and labor rights, but where world-class researchers every day are studying occupational disease, toxic exposures, and organizational psychology.

The lawsuit is currently in the discovery phase, which means, among other things, that people involved in these events are currently being interviewed by attorneys. As depositions and other findings in the case are shared with us, we are learning more about what happened at our wastewater treatment plant. In the coming days, we will be sharing with you some of those findings.

If you are unfamiliar with our previous reporting on this, you can see a summary of it, along with City Manager George Lahanas’s response, here. We also invite you to read our full investigative series, “The Mercurial Trail,” which used a large Freedom of Information Act request to try to track how mercury was spilled at the plant and where it went.

As always, if you have tips or thoughts to share with us, we invite you to contact us.