Whistleblower: The mystery of Hangar 6

Two Minnesotans say they were permanently injured at an Army base in Alaska, but the government stopped their workers' comp benefits in 2007.

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Joseph Rian, 48, left, and Jeff Buttler, 45, are cousins and longtime construction workers. Five years ago, they were working together building a parking lot on a military base in Fairbanks, Alaska, when an unknown chemical in the soil was released into the air.

Photo: James Eli Shiffer, Star Tribune

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McGREGOR, MINN. - Since the strange accident that changed his life five years ago, Joseph Rian of McGregor has not been able to spend his summers the way he wants to: pushing dirt with heavy machinery on a construction site in Alaska.

In fact, Rian hasn't worked a full day since June 2006, when he was part of a crew that unearthed something toxic in the ground while excavating for a new hangar at the Fort Wainwright Army base.

Invisible fumes from the buried pollution were so noxious that workers were left vomiting and staggering from the work site. The Army shut down the project, took workers to the hospital and launched a still-unfinished investigation into the cause of the mass exposure.

While most of the 30 workers who sought treatment recovered, at least four -- including Rian, 48, and his cousin, Jeff Buttler, 45, also of McGregor -- claim the accident permanently damaged their digestive and nervous systems.

A long-delayed government study made public this year confirmed that workers at Hangar 6 were sickened by a still-unknown contaminant in a base brimming with pollution. The study found that environmental safety rules were violated and that the Army squandered a chance to pinpoint the offending chemical.

Despite those findings, Rian, Buttler and other workers have gotten nowhere with their efforts to win compensation from the general contractor and the Army. Their benefits were cut off in 2007 after doctors determined they were able to return to work.

"The Army doesn't want to have to go in there and clean up their mess," said Rian, who is plagued by constant headaches, nausea and a feeling of "permanent sunburn" in his face. "It's cheaper to see us rot."

Army officials at Fort Wainwright were unavailable for comment last week. In 2009, the Army successfully argued in court that Alaska's workers' comp law shielded it from liability. Altogether, Rian got a total of $28,761 in workers' comp, which he said is less than half of what he used to earn in a single construction season.

Robin Gabbert, an Anchorage attorney who represents the workers' comp insurer, said the injured workers were generously compensated.

"Whatever they were exposed to, there were only short-term consequences and no long-term residual effects," Gabbert said.

The workers' plight caught the attention of a Washington advocacy group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which says the incident at Hangar 6 is part of continuing environmental misconduct by the military. PEER's executive director, Jeff Ruch, has called the "casualties" at Fort Wainwright "utterly avoidable."

Founded just before World War II as a training site for arctic warfare, Fort Wainwright was declared a Superfund site in 1990. It has been the site of indiscriminate dumping and spills of hazardous chemicals, from oil to solvents to unexploded bombs.

Despite pollution problems, the Army built 55 units of base housing in 2005 on a former landfill. It stopped the project when construction workers reported a strange smell, which turned out to be extensive pollution by PCBs, a known carcinogen. So far, the cleanup has cost $21 million, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

In 2006, the Army hired a contractor to build a new hangar at the base. In mid-June of that year, Rian and Buttler dug up an unexploded mortar shell, but that didn't stop the work. Nor did the contractor, Bristol Construction, have a "sniffer," a portable device to detect contaminants, despite being required to do so by its contract, an Army study concluded.

On June 29, Buttler was running his bulldozer when he broke through a layer of clay and a "weird chemical smell" surrounded him.

Within minutes, his head was pounding with migraine force. He climbed off his bulldozer, talked to one of the site supervisors and threw up. The contractor sent him to the hospital. The area Buttler had excavated was cordoned off with yellow tape, but work continued.

Buttler was back the next day when wind blew fumes over the whole crew. Suddenly, workers were gasping, vomiting and falling over.

Rian stopped his Bobcat to check the crew. "Two steps away from it, I was on my knees," he said. The Army shut down the site. Yet no blood or urine samples were taken from workers that day. On both days, the contractor violated "proper medical response procedures" and as a result "may have hindered the medical investigation," according to a 2007 Army report on the incident.

Studies have ruled out various contaminants, such as chemical warfare agents, solvents, benzene and pesticides. But the unknown contaminant directly affected the "short-term health" of at least 17 workers, according to a draft report last year by Alaska state scientists and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The report was inconclusive about long-term health problems claimed by four workers, which range from dizziness and headaches to nausea and tingling and numbness in hands and feet.

Buttler has gone back to work, maintaining equipment for a local business, but he said he feels sick with every meal and sometimes suffers such intense pain in his joints that he can barely walk. Rian said he hasn't been able to work more than an hour at a time since the accident.

"Trust me, there's nothing I'd rather be doing than earning a paycheck," Rian said.

A lawsuit by Rian and two others against the Army was dismissed by a federal judge in December 2009 because Alaska's recently amended workers' comp law shields the owner of the project where the workplace injury supposedly occurred. The workers hope to do better with their demand for benefits.

Meanwhile, the new Hangar 6 has been built, and the contaminated spot paved over. While the area "does not pose a current risk to human health," the federal report notes, "It is not possible to say whether all potential future uses of the land would be safe."

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