Behind Old Doors

For years workers at White Pine Sash made an honest living in a cloud \nof chemicals. \nDid they pay \na price for it?


On any given day at Missoula White Pine Sash, employees would punch their time cards and make their way to the coffee machine, waving a friendly good morning here and there, before settling down for another day of work at the mill. Most employees were lifers there, working in the dip shed, the frame department, the paint room, or the sawmill for 20, 30, even 40 years. For residents of North Missoula, White Pine Sash was a steadfast presence—the big, bustling mill down the block, the place where a father or mother, uncle or spouse worked, the source of a good paycheck that put food on the table for the family. Then on Christmas Eve, 1996 White Pine Sash abruptly closed its doors after more than 70 years in business.

Once located at 1301 Scott Street in North Missoula, White Pine Sash—owned by the national Huttig Corporation—was a precision wood manufacturing facility, primarily the makers of door and window components. Sashes, frames, and sills from White Pine Sash are in most homes in the Missoula area and beyond.

To preserve the wood, to make it last longer and to prevent rotting, the milled wood products were treated with a chemical called pentachlorophenol (penta). In 1988, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) passed a law that restricted what was once the widespread use of penta. Today, penta is still used to a limited extent for treating railroad ties, fence posts, and power line poles. Penta and dioxin, a byproduct of penta, have unique chemical properties with potentially adverse health effects. These contaminants can be breathed in, absorbed through the skin, ingested in drinking water and certain foods and passed on to infants through breast milk. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) 90 percent of dioxin in the human body comes from eating food, primarily meat and dairy products.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, contaminants associated with penta and dioxin were discovered first in the soil and later in the groundwater beneath the White Pine Sash site. In 1993, while rebuilding and renovating the site, the company unearthed leaky, abandoned tanks used in the past to store chemicals. They had been underground since the 1950s.

“We knew almost nothing about harmful chemicals or contaminants in the soil, water, and air around us until the tanks were discovered, and then we only found out about it from the newspaper and the health department, not from our employers,” says Jerri Marshall, a former White Pine Sash employee of 21 years. “Until the late ’80s, when we finally got a few pamphlets from OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration], we had absolutely no inkling that we were dealing everyday with harmful chemicals. The people who dipped the wood in the big vats of penta were never told to wear gloves or masks or anything. Until we got a city hookup, we all drank the water from the well, made coffee with it, washed our hands and faces with it. I mean, why would you think you were anything but safe unless you were told otherwise?”

In 1987, White Pine Sash did the first of two significant on-site renovations, moving a building and several departments. “Before this first renovation, our timecards were kept right outside the dip shed,” says Marshall. “We were also drinking well water until that time. I remember sometimes water was brought in for us because the well had been temporarily contaminated from sewage leakage or something. I’m not sure the well water was ever tested for chemical contaminants related to our treatment processes.”

Colleen Baldwin, a longtime resident of North Missoula, says that her husband, who worked at White Pine Sash for 28 years, remembers times when “the water smelled bad, tasted bad. Sometimes the company would ship water in.”

Aimee Reynolds, a risk assessor at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), says “No one was drinking contaminated water.” In 1994, after several aborted and botched investigations into the contamination at the site, including one by the Department of Agriculture, which drilled holes through the aquifer, making it sieve-like and more harmful, the DEQ took over as the lead agency. Reynolds was the project officer for the site at that time. By the time the DEQ was on the scene, however, employees at White Pine Sash were drinking water from the city hookup.

“I can’t say what was in that well before we came on, but when we first sampled the water, it met all the proper standards. It just doesn’t make sense that all the nearby wells were fine and this one would be contaminated,” she says. “If anything was contaminated it was the perched aquifer, not the deeper Missoula aquifer, and that was dealt with.”

The Missoula Valley is unique in that it has a very productive aquifer; all the water for Missoula is supplied from it. “Because it is so productive, the aquifer is vulnerable to certain contaminants not readily broken down by rocks and sun,” says John Harvala of the Missoula Valley Water Quality District. “A few years ago, as part of a public awareness campaign in Missoula, we put up signs around town that say ‘Missoula Valley Aquifer: 70 Feet Below’ or ‘Missoula Valley Aquifer: 60 Feet Below.’” According to Harvala, the drinking water in Missoula today is “some of the cleanest water in the country and cleaner than some bottled water you can buy off the shelf.”

What about the workers?

In the most recent risk assessment report from the DEQ, the only mention of potentially harmful contamination to former employees is related to those who worked in the dip room. “Compared with other sites, like Love Canal, the levels of contamination on the White Pine Sash site are not that high,” says Reynolds. “So it makes me think that there is less potential that residents and former White Pine Sash employees would be affected. And as far as the studies I have looked at, cancer rates are not higher in the north part of Missoula compared with other areas.

“The hard truth is that one out of three of us is going to develop cancer in our lifetime,” Reynolds adds. “It is tough to separate it all out, to say for sure that this one thing or that one thing is the cause of someone’s disease. There are so many factors, so many causes of cancer. I mean, you get exposed from the formaldehyde in your carpet, from the fumes while you pump gas, from smoking.” For past employees of White Pine Sash, however, there are lingering doubts.

“[T]he folks who worked in the dip room were certainly the most at risk for exposure, but it would be impossible to work in any part of that company and not be exposed to penta,” says Marshall. She and several other former employees say that it was quite common that wood that had been cut and then dipped would be returned for another cut while it was still wet. Workers say the chemicals would be in the air, dripping from the wood, onto their shoes, their clothing, and their skin.

Brenda Gibbs, who worked at White Pine Sash for 19 years, many of which as a supervisor of the treatment room, recalls plenty of times when they were overwhelmed with work orders. “We’d be dipping as fast as we could and we’d be soaked, literally covered in it,” says Gibbs, who also served as president of the union at White Pine Sash. “We didn’t know anything about penta being dangerous until someone made a stink and OSHA came to talk with us. I remember I was pregnant with my second child at the time. It was scary, but we were told by White Pine Sash that we were fine, that with OSHA’s input they would make sure we all took the proper precautions. You want to believe what you’re told… The last few years before White Pine Sash was shut down, business wasn’t as good as it had been. Employees, including union stewards, were afraid for their jobs. Fear can keep people quiet.”

Gibbs is one of nine women she worked with at White Pine Sash who had to undergo a hysterectomy. “The symptoms were usually the same. Most of us had heavy bleeding, severe cramps, fibroid tumors,” she says.

“I can’t remember more than a few women in the whole 21 years I was working there who were having children,” says Marshall. Marshall herself has a thyroid condition, which does not run in her family. Her thyroid problem makes her wonder if she is just unlucky or if it is related to her exposure at White Pine Sash.

“It’s strange. You hear about people being sick all the time. People who are very ill and don’t know why,” says Baldwin. “A couple who lived across the street both died of cancer last February. She died on the first day of the month, he on the last. He was a smoker, but he also had an enormous tumor on the side of his neck. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause, but you hear stories all the time of people who live in the neighborhood who worked at White Pine Sash who are sick or dead. My husband and I must know a good seven or eight women he used to work with at the mill who right now are battling breast, cervical, or uterine cancer.”

Like several others, Baldwin asks, “Don’t we deserve some sort of explanation from Huttig … [or] from some agency?” Baldwin’s daughter, Maura, 18, has suffered from endometriosis since the eighth grade. Endometriosis is a condition in which the inner lining of the uterus forms on the outside instead and can adhere to other organs. Oftentimes it leads to infertility. Baldwin’s niece, in her late-30s, who lives only a few blocks away, suffers from the same condition.

“She has had to quit jobs because of the pain and the time off she has had to take. She has also never been able to bear children,” Baldwin says. “It makes you think. Is having two young women in one family who happen to have the same condition an indication of genetics or a result of local contamination? I wonder what we’ve done to our children living here. I breastfed both of mine. I tried to do what a good, nurturing mother should.”

Toxins here and everywhere

As the agency responsible for state Superfund sites such as the White Pine Sash site, the DEQ is required to determine what toxins were related to that site. From there, they create a Feasibility Study, which is a plan to clean up the site based on the risks and assessments. The Feasibility Study is followed by a Record of Decision, which essentially informs the responsible party—Huttig, in this case—what they need to do to clean up the site.

“It’s a tricky balancing act. This country has basically polluted everything with penta dioxin,” says Chris Cerquone of the Missoula City-County Health Department, who has been working closely with former employees of White Pine since 1993. (White Pine Sash was designated a state Superfund site seven years ago.) “There is lingering exposure to [dioxin] just being on the planet, so it’s difficult to determine how many of these chemicals come only from that site and nowhere else. These problems extend far beyond the Superfund. They deserve national attention. And unfortunately, the Superfund process is very slow.”

By the mid 1990s, when White Pine employees were drinking water from the city hookup, they no longer had to walk through the dip shed to punch in and out and knew they needed to take certain precautions. Still, they were parking in the new parking lot that had been built on the site of the old dip shed. So each morning, they’d walk across the parking lot to the mill, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.

Nearby, the wood that had been dipped would be piled and left to dry. On busy days, pallets of dripping and drying wood would be pushed beyond a concrete slab designed to steer the chemicals back into the tub. On hectic days, when work orders were coming quickly, the pallets would be moved past the concrete slab to the ground, where the excess runoff would soak the ground.

Since the DEQ has been overseeing the Superfund site, it has conducted tests onsite and offsite, and in the past several years, the county health department has worked to fill in the gaps by conducting additional tests offsite. Those tests have included dust assessment samples, water testing, surface/soil samples, and garden and vegetable samples.

“We wanted to address people’s primary concerns,” says Cerquone. “We wanted to offer real answers to such questions as, ‘Can my kids play in the yard? Can we eat from our vegetable garden?’”

Cerquone says that most of the tests concentrated on the concerns of nearby residents, not former employees of White Pine Sash. To date, these preliminary tests show that little or no cleanup will be necessary, though some cleanup has begun. Having completed the Remedial Investigation, which basically looks into the locations and severity of the contamination, DEQ prepared the Risk Assessment. The 30-day window for public comment on the report closed at the end of August.

“We received responses on the assessment from former White Pine Sash employees, residents, the Health Department, and a few local environmental groups,” says Reynolds. She says she has not had time to give those responses more than a cursory look.

Released from the job

In late November 1996, White Pine Sash employees were called together and told that the mill would be shutting down. “I don’t think the company had been doing a whale of business in the last two years, but there was clearly work to do,” says Marshall. “We were told that we could stay until Christmas Eve, time enough to clean and make the machines sellable. We were given no severance pay, no pension… no explanation, nothing.”

Employees say they were then asked by White Pine Sash to sign a waiver form absolving the company of any damages associated with their work.

“If you didn’t sign, you didn’t get your accrued vacation pay for the year. They were very matter-of-fact about it,” says Marshall, who was one of the few employees who refused to sign the waiver. As a result, she lost more than $1,600 in vacation pay.

When asked about the waiver forms, Brian Douglas, Huttig’s local consultant, had no comment except to say that the waivers and the circumstances surrounding the closing of the plant were beyond the scope of his work. “Those are corporate matters,” he says. Repeated phone calls by the Independent to Huttig’s corporate offices in St. Louis went unanswered. When a spokesman for the company, Tom Tenhula, was finally reached, he would not comment on possible health concerns among former White Pine Sash workers and said the company never asked its employees to sign any “medical waivers.”

However, a copy of the document given to White Pine Sash employees to sign was provided to the Independent. Entitled “Mutual Release of All Claims,” it reads, in part: “Employee acknowledge and agrees that the claims released and discharged hereby included, but are not limited to…any and all claims for personal injury, emotional distress, libel, slander, defamation and other physical, economic, or emotional injury; and…all claims for attorneys’ fees and costs.”

According to Baldwin, on the day the plant closed there were still piles of orders to fill. “Maybe the mill wasn’t doing the business it once had, but they had just built a brand new building not three or four years before, a building they put a lot of money into, and there was still ample work to do. Then they wanted everyone to sign those waivers. You don’t want to be paranoid, but it all seems rather suspicious. Maybe the company closed because they didn’t want to take responsibility for the contamination and all the ramifications that that would bring.”

According to Reynolds at the DEQ, Huttig is up-to-date on its payments and is taking all the required actions as the responsible party for the cleanup of the site.

Who’s paying attention now

On Aug. 25, longtime White Pine Sash employee Robert “Jake” Jacobsen died. He had worked in, among other departments, the dip room at White Pine Sash.

“He was a great man, wonderful, funny, alive,” says Gibbs. “My husband and I saw him about a month before he died [of prostate cancer]. He was a real character. Never wore a shirt or sunscreen and had all sorts of tattoos. He was a walking comic strip. That day we saw him, he had open sores, burns, and scabs on his forearms and hands, maybe skin cancer, but they were only on his arms and hands.”

Until August, no one except Cerquone and Bob Oaks, director of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation (North Missoula CDC), showed much interest in the former employees. Spearheaded by Cerquone, the health department recently received a grant from the National Organization of City-County Health Organizations to determine if there are lingering health issues in the community. In addition, the grant will address the health concerns of former White Pine Sash employees.

“This grant is the last chance to open the door, to fund the health evaluation tests that these formers employees deserve,” says Oaks. “Since the mid-’90s, agency after agency has declined to give these people the proper health tests, if only to put their minds at ease. If, with this grant, we can do some outreach with the former employees, listen to their stories and concerns, and conduct a study that shows even an impressionistic pattern of health problems and concerns, maybe ATSDR will reconsider and perform the necessary fat biopsy and toxic-level tests on these individuals. If that doesn’t work, the group will have no opportunity for validation. It has been many years that these people have been asking for studies to be done, health tests to be performed, questions to be answered.”

Following an Aug. 29 meeting of the North Missoula CDC, the county health department, and former White Pine Sash workers to explain the grant, Marshall said, “There was a middle-aged woman there who started to think of all the people who had died in the area in her lifetime. Without pausing, she could think of more than 30 people. Maybe it’s a coincidence. I couldn’t say, and neither could she.”

Dr. Gerry Henningsen, a former EPA health officer, will be speaking on dioxins and PCPs on Thursday, Sept. 27 at 6:30 PM at the Missoula Children’s Theatre. For more info, call 523-4890.

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