Lawsuit Alleges Toxic Exposure at Prison in Florida

By: Bill Kaczor, AP
By: Bill Kaczor, AP

Tallahassee, FL (AP) -- May 23, 2012 --

More than 160 current and former employees and family members are suing the federal prison agency over ailments they blame on exposure to toxins at an electronics recycling facility at a penitentiary in the Florida Panhandle.

Many are suffering from sores, joint pain, memory loss and internal bleeding as well as thyroid, reproductive and breathing problems, according to the lawsuits.

They attribute those and other ailments to such toxins as lead, cadmium and beryllium that filled the air and covered their clothing in the form of a pollen-like dust at Marianna Federal Correctional Institution's e-waste recycling facility.

"They never gave us any protection for handling this contaminated material," said Freda Cobb, a medically retired former guard and cook supervisor. "We felt they used us as their guinea pigs."

The Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1994 began using low-paid inmate labor to recycle computers and other electronic gear to extract gold and other valuable materials at Marianna, about 60 miles west of Tallahassee. Three years later, the bureau began expanding the program to other facilities in New Jersey, Kansas, California, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Texas and Ohio.

Cobb, 51, was recuperating at home Wednesday after being hospitalized for several days last week suffering from thyroid problems, high blood pressure, and liver disease. Over the years she's also had skin sores, memory loss and migraines. Her uterus was removed when it tripled in size. Her husband and children also have had various ailments.

Two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court at Panama City last month allege the bureau and UNICOR, the trade name for Federal Prison Industries, "willfully, recklessly, and/or negligently" operated the recycling facility in a way that caused the plaintiffs to be exposed to toxic dust.

That included at one time the prisoners' use of hammers to break glass computer screens and television picture tubes containing toxic materials.

"When I came out at the end of the day, I looked like a coal miner," said Delbert McKinney, who retired as a correctional officer last year. "I'd have it on my nostrils. I'd blow it out of my nose. It would be on my clothing."

McKinney, 57, said he suffers from internal bleeding, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, skin and brain lesions, nausea, headaches and dizziness. His wife had thyroid problems after washing his contaminated clothing and their son developed rashes, he said.

The bureau had not filed a response as of Wednesday. A spokesman for the bureau in Washington, D.C., was unaware of the lawsuits and had no immediate comment.

The lawsuits, one for 82 current and former employees and the other for 83 family members, were filed after the government rejected their administrative claims.

Katherine Viker, one of three Tallahassee lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said the bureau contended current and former employees cannot sue because they are covered by workers compensation for job-related injuries.

That argument, though, does not apply to their families and also shouldn't apply to the employees because negligence negates the workers compensation exception to their right to sue, Viker said.
"We absolutely know that they knew they were poisoning these people," she said.

That includes current and former inmates. They aren't included in the lawsuits because federal law imposes stricter legal requirements on prisoners, the lawyers say. They first must go through a multistep grievance process and the law limits lawyer fees and awards.
The suits are seeking unspecified compensatory damages for "physical injury, medical bills, genetic damage, depression, lost wages and loss of the capacity for the enjoyment of life."

This is a third attempt at legal action.

A federal judge in 2009 dismissed a suit filed by employees and inmates seeking a declaratory judgment, injunction and the release of documents on dangers and safety risks of recycling.
A second suit sought to have the recycling facility declared a nuisance under Florida environmental law. It, too, was dismissed. The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeal rejected an appeal last year, ruling a state law couldn't be used to close down a federal facility, Viker said.

The Department of Justice's Office of Inspector General issued an investigative report in October 2010. It concluded e-waste recycling programs at Marianna and other prisons failed to safeguard staff and inmate safety. Investigators found instances of misconduct, dereliction of duty and dishonesty including potential criminal violations.

The report though noted other federal regulatory agencies between 2007 and 2009 found exposures to cadmium and lead were below limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Prior to 2003, UNICOR lacked adequate worker protection and violated numerous OSHA regulations, the report said.

The lawsuits contend UNICOR still fails to follow the most minimal of safety precautions "to date despite the government's knowledge of the dangers."

McKinney said a doctor told him he couldn't pinpoint the cause of his internal bleeding and that operating would do no good because the scar tissue would kill him.

"I figure my days are numbered," he said. "I don't care if I don't get a dime."

McKinney, though, said he wants justice from a government he believes just doesn't care.

"They just left us hung out to dry," he said. "We're another Agent Orange. ... It destroyed me and my family. It destroyed my career."


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Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
  • by Gale Location: Fla. on May 24, 2012 at 07:01 PM
    One more thing Mr. Real it is apparent that you yourself have not had a tast of death, sham you.There is still mercy and grace, the last time I read my Bible, and it sure would not hurt you if you opened your bible and read a couple of verses.
  • by Whistleblower Location: Florida on May 23, 2012 at 06:16 PM
    There are other sites at Florida Prisons where pictures exist of waste sites that have been built over. It is unsure whether they are toxic wastes. It is a fact that it was improper disposal at best. I am speaking specifically of the Women's Prison in Central Florida. I will reveal more info in a couple of days.
  • by STEVE on May 23, 2012 at 03:27 PM
    The federal government is killing this country and its' citizens in many ways. I hope this lawsuit is found in favor of the employees and family members that have suffered from government atrocities.
  • by real lawyer Location: fl-wide on May 23, 2012 at 03:00 PM
    bet everyone of them show up everyday to collect a paycheck. YOU ARE SUEING YOURSELF OUT A JOB.
    • reply
      by Abnormalous on May 23, 2012 at 03:29 PM in reply to real lawyer
      The job is unimportant when your employer is killing you.
    • reply
      by DoHuh? on May 24, 2012 at 04:30 AM in reply to real lawyer
      And I guess all those Vietnam Veterans just complained themselves out of a really good weed killer.
    • reply
      by Gale on May 24, 2012 at 06:57 PM in reply to real lawyer
      Mr. Real For your information some of us can not show up for we are in our beds dieing, because of their negligence, and greed, if it was your loved one laying in bed dieing I bet you would be at the law libray trying to figure out a that you might help them. Do not Judge for yea be Judged. Compassion is ok when one needs it. The Government needs to step up and do right with the Toxic Mess that they have caused. To Staff and inmates, our our environment, air and drinking water. I pray that no one in your family has to indure the pain and the suffering the these people have gone thru. You have not wore the shoes that these people are having to ware.
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