Monday, July 7, 2008

The Next Erin Brockovich?

Ex-worker on crusade against chemical plant

Part One

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It was the dead birds that set Rita Smith off.

Her husband, Steve, had been ill for years, with oozing sores on his skin, shortness of breath and mental confusion. She suspected that it all was tied to a Mojave Desert chemical plant where they both had worked.

The company, now named Searles Valley Minerals, fiercely denied that working there made Steve Smith gravely ill, and by 2000, Rita Smith's hunt for answers had turned up little, despite all her letters and calls to regulators.

That was before she learned of the largely unpublicized deaths of thousands of migratory birds that landed on a lake created by the plant's discharges at its desolate site northeast of Los Angeles.

"When I was a girl, I read about miners dying in the coal mines, and it is a known fact, if the birds are dying, there is something wrong in the mine," Rita Smith said. "At that plant, the birds were a first warning there was a hazard there, something wasn't safe."

Soon, Smith would begin an assault against the plant in a campaign reminiscent of those waged by crusaders Karen Silkwood and Erin Brockovich, whose battles against corporate giants in the 1970s and 1990s became subjects of Hollywood films.

Sometimes crude, always relentless, Smith would investigate the plant's operations stretching back for decades. She would pore over thousands of documents and pester regulators. She would hear harrowing stories of sick workers and persuade some of them to file claims against the plant alleging health problems caused by exposure to toxic substances.

This is the story of Rita Smith's decadelong journey, from the exhilarating high of her husband's eventual court victory over the company to a devastating low that she did not see coming.

For its part, the company assails the 50-year-old Smith, who lost a 1995 sexual harassment lawsuit against the plant, as someone entirely lacking in credibility. The company says she has waged a baseless campaign, spewing false allegations about the plant that no regulatory agency has seen fit to act on.

Today, the state says the company's injury claim and illness rates are lower than the industry average, and air, water and toxic-substances regulators say the company's record has improved considerably in recent years.

The company says there is no cancer cluster in the area and no prevalence of illness evident among its workers. It adds that a review of Steve Smith's records "did not support the finding that our facility was somehow linked to chemical toxicity in Mr. Smith." In extensive answers the company provided in response to dozens of Chronicle questions, it maintained that it has an excellent safety program, that it has spent millions reducing its emissions and tackling its bird problem, and that there is nothing about the plant's operations that should be considered harmful for workers or neighboring residents.

"Frankly, the wild assertions that reflect on our local community and the background and regulatory framework of our operations are shameful," Searles Valley Minerals' executive director, Arzell Hale, told The Chronicle.

In her campaign, Rita Smith has undeniably hurt herself with her outbursts. She speaks of "toothless, useless-as-tits-on-a-boar regulators" and wants plant executives arrested for murder.

So far, she has failed to persuade any agency to file environmental or labor-safety charges against the plant. But some experts, asked by The Chronicle to review her allegations, say she raises some valid concerns that merit investigation.

In the past two decades, the companies owning the plant have paid out more than $2 million to state and federal agencies to settle air, waste, wildlife and water-related problems, including a turbine modification that for more than a decade sent 40-plus tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxide into the air each year. The plant is also one of the state's biggest industrial air polluters, ranking in 2006 among the top 10 emitters of lung-damaging particulate matter and nitrogen oxide.

Smith remains unconvinced the plant has changed its ways.

"People work to provide for their families and bam! They get sick," Smith said. "That is my bitch with the damned state - that we are kept too ignorant about the hazards coming from these corporations. It's criminal."


Fleeing a bad marriage, Rita arrived in the Searles Valley in 1989. She left behind a painful period in her life that culminated with several months in prison for her conviction in a case involving possession of marijuana for sale.

In Trona, she lived with her sister, right next to the plant site, where mining operations have been conducted by a string of companies for more than a century. In 1993, at a local Mexican restaurant, Rita was introduced to Steve Smith, a fellow worker she had never met because they were based in different parts of the sprawling plant. They were soon married.

Though Trona sits 170 miles northeast of Los Angeles, it feels as if it were thousands of miles from anywhere: It faces a windswept vista of sand and stark mountains that border the barren, rock-strewn valley.

What attracted miners in the 19th century were the minerals deposited in the valley over millions of years. Today, Trona has only about 1,885 residents, and many structures are boarded up. Bits and pieces of people's lives - machine parts, broken cars, a toppled ornamental fountain - are strewn about in many front yards.

Searles Valley has a shimmering lake spread out over 2 square miles. The lake exists only because of discharges from the plant.

In a nonstop loop, the plant pumps millions of gallons of brine - a highly saline mixture of water and minerals - into the plant from a groundwater basin underlying the valley. After targeted minerals are extracted, spent brine is pumped to the lake surface or into the basin below.

The company employs 640 workers and produces almost 2 million tons of products annually, including soda ash, boron minerals and sodium sulfate. Its products show up in everyday items such as glass, detergent and carbonated drinks.

Rita was hired at the plant in January 1990. She operated machinery and sometimes worked on a spill cleanup crew. Steve operated equipment, shoveled up spills, cleaned out chutes and did testing in the laboratory.

Daily, the couple said, they got splashed with "product" - which they said could be anything from a fine dust to a coarse, wet material, all coming from processed chemicals. "The equipment leaked, spewing product and brine," Rita Smith said. "The brine would get on my face. I would breathe it in, and sometimes it would burn my damn nose and my eyeballs."

After Smith had worked at the plant for almost 3 1/2 years, she said, the company terminated her in 1995 while she was off work because of an on-the-job back injury. The company denies it fired her, saying that rather than expect her to work while she was in pain, it "removed her from duty" and provided her with occupational training funding through its insurance company.

By 1998, when he had put in 19 years on the job, Steve Smith said he was too sick to work - suffering from oozing sores, exhaustion, full-body nerve spasms, painful tingling in his limbs and shortness of breath.

Rita Smith was angry over what she saw as the company's refusal to pay for all her husband's needed medical treatments, including tests to pinpoint what was wrong with his nervous system. She wanted answers about why Steve was ill.


At first, Rita Smith's detective work moved slowly. But her search accelerated in 2000, when the state Fish and Game Department began looking into bird deaths at the lake. Initially, it appeared that the deaths were tied to an oil spill from the plant, but Fish and Game noticed that some of the dying birds didn't seem to have oil on them. The agency investigated and concluded that the primary cause of death was the high salt content of the lake, though the company cited other factors, such as the dehydration of migrating birds.

"Salt toxicosis kills these birds within hours or days," said Steve Hampton, the department's resource economist. "When the birds drink the brine, the high salt levels impact the birds' neurological and other systems. The levels of other contaminants that might be out there in the lake are unlikely to kill the birds this quickly."

The state tested the birds for some toxic substances, but not others. Smith said the state should have tested for every possible chemical in the brine.

There would be no lake for the birds to land on if the plant did not pump brine onto what otherwise would be a mostly dry lakebed. But such pumping has gone on for more than 90 years. The company says its return of depleted brine to the lake is the only way it can comply with a U.S. Interior Department requirement aimed at conserving the resource.

The company also asserts that although it has devoted "extensive resources to determining" why the birds die, "we have not secured a definitive statement to answer that question." It says some birds apparently die because they are old or succumb to predators or illness.

Since 2000, when Fish and Game began tracking dead or dying birds at the lake, the department says about 4,000 birds have died there - mostly ducks, grebes and loons.

To Smith, the bird deaths underscored her gnawing question: What chemicals are in the brine that plant employees have worked with for decades, and how do the chemicals, when mixed together, affect human health?

Melanie Marty, chief of the air toxicology and epidemiology branch of the state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said that even if the state has identified high salt levels as the cause of the birds' deaths, such a finding is a separate issue from the question of what potential health problems the brine's contents might pose for workers.

In 2001, Fish and Game expressed concern about the arsenic in the brine in a letter to the state Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, which regulates waste discharges from more than 1,400 public and nonpublic entities in eastern California. The letter stated that arsenic and several other substances in the brine "should be expressly addressed" by the board's regulatory actions, particularly because those substances are hard to clean up "when accumulated over time."

Arsenic was not put in the brine by the company. "Through geologic time, arsenic - a naturally occurring element in the earth's crust - was carried by water down to Searles Lake. The arsenic in the brine today is there because it dissolved from the sediments where it had been deposited as a result of the evaporation of the water in the lake," said Carl Hauge, the former chief hydro-geologist for the state's Department of Water Resources.

Lahontan's top officer, Harold Singer, said the chemicals in the spent brine pumped back to the lake "are below hazardous waste levels, except for naturally occurring arsenic." He added that the board "allows the arsenic discharge under an exemption provided for in state law" for such a naturally occurring element.

Singer says that because the plant doesn't increase the level of arsenic already pre-existing in the brine, "there is no regulatory purpose to setting arsenic limits because they aren't changing the naturally occurring level in the brine."

In 1978, more than two decades before Fish and Game raised its concern with the water board, the federal government had adopted a revised standard for arsenic in the workplace, citing the cancer risk it posed for workers.

In 1985, the plant owner, then Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp., issued an employee safety handbook that made no mention of arsenic in the brine. The handbook reassured workers that company products producing airborne dust "are all water soluble" and "even heavy airborne concentrations are not known to have a harmful effect on your health now or at any time in the future."

A year later, a Lahontan board engineer wrote a memo to his boss recounting his conversation with the Kerr-McGee plant's environmental coordinator. The memo suggests that at that point, the company's environmental coordinator knew about arsenic's contribution to the lake's toxicity.


To this day, the company argues that there is no need to alert workers about arsenic because skin exposure is not viewed as a hazard and because "the brine does not pose an exposure (risk) for workers as it cannot be ingested." It also maintains that brine "cannot evaporate into the air where it can be inhaled."

Ten ex-workers told The Chronicle, however, that sometimes brine got splashed in their mouths. Many also said that both wet brine and dried product from the brine got on their skin and clothes. The company counters that any of the foul-tasting brine entering a worker's mouth would be spit out immediately, and that the small amount involved would not pose a risk. The company adds that dermal contamination isn't a problem, either, because the skin acts as a barrier.

Based on the figure provided by the company on the amount of arsenic in the brine, the level is 10,000 times greater than the federal limit for arsenic in drinking water, which is 10 parts per billion. But the company says that because no one drinks the brine, its arsenic level "does not suggest a toxic exposure simply because it exceeds drinking water standards."

The company points to a 1985 state probe that sampled the plant's air and brine and concluded there was no evidence of overexposure to airborne arsenic or any pattern of arsenic-related illnesses evident at the plant. Searles Valley Minerals also says it sharply cut its arsenic emissions into the atmosphere - by 90 percent from 1989 to 1996 alone. The company says its reduction of several pollutants' emission levels in recent years helped cut the nearby community's possible cancer risk from such emissions to an extremely low level.

For Marty, of the state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, one central question is workers' possible inhalation of contaminants in the brine.

Marty said that if dry brine regularly gets on workers and is often blown about in the air by desert winds, "the question is how much arsenic and other chemicals from the brine are getting inhaled by the workers, and how much take-home exposure is occurring when these workers go home and change their clothes and track the stuff around."

Though the plant does have some showers, the company says there are "no formal employee change or central shower areas, and we are not required to provide them as there is nothing in our work environment that would require those facilities."

On the issue of worker exposure inside the plant, Patrick Wilson, a senior toxicologist in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said: "It comes down to whom you believe.

"If the workers do have routine and repeated contact with brine that has elevated concentrations of arsenic, either through inhalation or ingestion, then a lot of us in the scientific community would have concern about the long-term impacts of that contact," Wilson said. "But if the company runs a clean shop and exposure to arsenic in brine is well controlled and workers have access to personal protective equipment and the protection of state labor regulations, then it would be difficult to make a connection between any illnesses that are currently observed and historical exposure to arsenic."

As Rita Smith sees it, anyone talking about the arsenic in the brine "can say it's 'naturally occurring' all they want to, but if they don't let you know how potent it is, then they killed your ass intentionally because it's admitted it's one of the most toxic substances known to man."

Experts consulted by The Chronicle say that arsenic is no chemical to be underestimated. They add that arsenic contamination typically occurs through ingestion or inhalation.

"Arsenic is a very powerful carcinogen," said arsenic expert John Froines, director of UCLA's Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. "There is significant risk of cancer from arsenic down to the part per trillion level, and further investigations of possible arsenic exposures at the plant are very much in order."

One expert also noted that even though the plant has achieved a sharp drop in its arsenic emissions, the arsenic in the brine remains a concern. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany in New York, said: "Arsenic is listed by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry as the No. 1 dangerous contaminant, and this reported level of arsenic in the brine is very high.

"Any arsenic exposure increases the risk of cancer," Carpenter said. "Having a brine with a high level of arsenic in the mouth, even if spit out quickly, and on clothes certainly increases the risk of cancer and other diseases associated with arsenic exposure."

The EPA's Wilson added that tests done now cannot reflect levels of arsenic exposure that occurred a decade or more ago. He said: "Following exposure, there is a latency period before symptoms develop - it can be 10, 15 or 20 years later."

Arsenic isn't the only matter at the plant that has received attention. In 2002, the Lahontan board approved a settlement with the company under which the plant - while admitting no liability or fault - paid the state $250,000 and agreed to complete other environmental projects that the state estimated cost $1.75 million. The settlement cited company waste discharge "that may have contributed to detrimental responses in birds," violations exceeding discharge limits on petroleum hydrocarbons, and illegal discharges of spent brine from pipe breaks. At the time, Lahontan's executive officer, Harold Singer, said the settlement was one of the largest "in many, many years."


In 2003, Steve Smith got sicker. His weight plummeted from 215 to 155 in only a few months. "Steve didn't want to live anymore - he was ready to put a gun to his head and kill himself," Rita Smith said.

The company was refusing to pay for doctors who are experts in caring for chemical workers, she said. The company said it would pay for any of the Smiths' medical bills approved by the workers' compensation system.

Angry at the company, Rita Smith returned to Trona in 2003 to hunt for the cause of Steve's illness. As the daughter of a construction worker who grew up in a small North Carolina town, Smith felt at ease with workers and their families.

Going door to door in Trona, Smith got people to write down their families' illnesses and deaths. One woman, the wife of an ex-plant worker, wrote that she had lost three sons - 20, 41 and 44. She added that two died of cancer and one of a heart attack. Smith said the woman told her that her sons had worked in the plant. It is impossible to know whether their plant work contributed to their deaths, and the woman wouldn't talk to The Chronicle.

But some who had worked in the plant did.


In 2004, at Kristy's Family Restaurant in Ridgecrest, Smith sat down with Michael Avery to hear his story.

A tall man with gray hair and a wide grin, Avery was hired at the plant in 1978, when the company was owned by Kerr-McGee. He worked there for 17 years, mainly in shipping.

Some days, he said, he would go home looking like a snowman with product all over him.

In 1994, when he had pneumonia, Avery's doctors told him that although he was 38, he had the lungs of a man who was 78.

In January 1996, Avery said the company terminated him and falsely claimed he had not shown a desire to return to work after being out ill. The company said it received a letter from Avery stating he would like to return to work eventually, but it said Avery himself acknowledged he was not physically able to work at that time.

Avery, now 51, told the Chronicle that in the 1980s, he was on a crew assigned to spray pesticide - he doesn't remember which pesticide - onto pallets used to ship product overseas. "This pesticide I used was full strength out of the five-gallon bucket. It was later learned that this insecticide should have been applied with rubber boots, disposable gloves, disposable coveralls and a special respirator the company didn't even own."

Asked about Avery's account, the company quoted a longtime shipping department manager who "does not recall any form of pesticides being applied to our pallets" before 2004, when spraying began being required in some cases and the plant bought pretreated pallets. But a co-worker of Avery's at the time, Don Huggins, confirmed Avery's story.

Avery also said that in the company's lunchrooms, it was often so windy that he could taste "chemical dust from plant operations" as he ate his sandwich.

Philip Harber, the chief of occupational and environmental medicine at UCLA who was Avery's doctor, said, "Based on what Mr. Avery described and the properties of what was involved, it appears likely his occupational exposure contributed significantly to his lung problem." Citing respiratory, internal and spine injuries, Avery eventually won a $657,000 settlement after negotiations between his lawyer and the insurance company administering the plant's workers' compensation claims.

The company notes that Avery's settlement was reached in the workers' compensation system, which compensates injured workers without regard to fault. Avery also recently filed a new claim with the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board, alleging he suffered "extreme cumulative chemical and toxin exposure" in his years at the plant.

The claim, which seeks a financial award for "serious and willful misconduct" by the company, alleges that chemicals from "leaking pipes, lines, pumps and valves would fall upon" Avery as he worked at the plant.

The company said it has no record of Avery voicing concerns about toxic exposure previously. Avery says it was only recently that he had his blood tested and learned that his body had high levels of chemicals not normally found in the general population.


The San Bernardino County district attorney's office told Rita Smith in 2004 that it was rejecting her request to prosecute the company. The office concluded there was insufficient evidence of environmental or other crimes.

Some state Fish and Game Department personnel had a different opinion. Two retired warden supervisors told The Chronicle that they advocated the company be prosecuted for bird deaths.

Mark Caywood, a retired patrol lieutenant, said state Fish and Game management "inferred that pushing the issue or prosecuting the company would result in the closing of the plant. But the game wardens knowledgeable about pollution who worked out there say it's a crime - the company is killing birds."

Donna Davis, the other retired patrol lieutenant, said: "There was no doubt there was a violation. There was no doubt that we had dead birds and the company was the cause of the deaths." But, she added, "There were a lot of politics involved in the County of San Bernardino, and the politics in the county were they couldn't afford to lose that tax base of the plant because that was money in the county's pocket."

Davis and Caywood said they were taken off the case, and a prosecution never happened. "We had freezers full of dead birds," Davis said. "It makes you sick to your stomach when these ducks have a convulsion and die in your arms."

Fish and Game's spokesman, Steve Martarano, said Davis and Caywood were moved to other projects after the investigation was over, and it was not a transfer to silence them. He added that the department settled the case by requiring the plant to do several things, including rescuing and rehabilitating birds and creating a new wetlands for birds in the Owens Valley, about 55 miles north of Searles Lake.

"The department believes the number of birds protected or saved by the new wetlands area at Owens Valley will fully offset the number of birds dying at Searles Lake," Martarano said.

Bill Sellers, an investigator for the county district attorney's office, said he did not find evidence supporting Smith's claims of criminal conduct by the plant. According to Smith, Sellers told her that workers have to prove an injury was caused by the chemicals. Smith said she responded: "Excuse me, do people walk around with laboratories attached to their damned asses?"


One evening in January 2005, Rita Smith was at home watching a "CSI" show on television when she heard a character mention a toxicological investigation into someone's death. Immediately, she knew she had a new tool in her own investigation.

She wanted to have her husband's fat tissue tested for a precise picture of his contamination levels. She started hunting for experts who could tell her where her husband could get these tests. Later, almost as an afterthought, she got tested, too.

That's when the mystery deepened. Rita Smith, who had fought for so many years to learn why her husband was ill, found out she was contaminated herself - with one of the most toxic compounds on the planet.

ABOUT THE SERIES

Rita Smith first called The Chronicle wanting to tell her story in 2002. She told an editorial assistant who answered the phone that her husband, a former chemical plant worker, was very sick after working at a plant in the San Bernardino County town of Trona in the Mojave Desert. She said thousands of birds had died near the plant - then named IMC Chemicals Inc. The details were sketchy.

The notes taken by the editorial assistant were passed on to Chronicle reporter Susan Sward. Over the next few years, Sward listened to Smith tell bits and pieces of her story over the phone, and more than a year ago, Sward began pursuing the story.

During her investigation, Sward interviewed more than 100 people - plant supervisors, former and current plant workers, some of their families, regulators, scientists, professors and Trona residents. She traveled twice to Trona. She asked the company dozens of questions about its operations. The company, now named Searles Valley Minerals, responded with hundreds of pages of detailed answers.

Today

Rita Smith, a former employee of a chemical plant in the Mojave desert, wages a campaign to learn why her husband, who also worked there, had become so ill.

Monday

After struggling for years to understand her husband's ailments, Rita Smith receives alarming news about her own health.


Part Two

Crusader against plant receives alarming news

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Rita Smith curled up alone in her garage office, crying. Minutes before, a laboratory employee had given her the news over the phone: Her test results weren't good, and she should see her doctor. Quickly.

It was 2005. For years, Smith had been embroiled in a battle with the owners of a chemical plant in the California desert where Smith and her husband, Steve, had worked.

She was convinced that the deaths of thousands of migratory birds, which perished after landing at a lake created by the plant's discharges, were a warning that plant workers were in danger. That is an allegation the company, now named Searles Valley Minerals, strongly denies.

Before the phone call, she hadn't been that worried about her test, done by the highly regarded AXYS Analytical Services, a laboratory in Canada. Yes, she had suffered from headaches and nausea for years, but it was Steve who had the strange symptoms: the chronic exhaustion, the damaged skin, the weight loss, the pain all over his body, the shortness of breath. Not her.

But Rita Smith soon got the word from her doctor. She was contaminated with high levels of DDE - a metabolized form of DDT, a pesticide banned in the United States since 1972. Steve's DDE level was above average, though not as high as hers. Like DDT, DDE is considered a probable carcinogen.

Rita Smith's mysterious test results marked the lowest point in her decadelong fight against the chemical company. What had started as a crusade to win medical treatment for her husband was now, in her mind, a campaign to expose toxic crimes in the desert.

The company says it is certain DDT hasn't been used at its plant since 1990, that it knows of no DDT use by any previous plant owner, and that tests required since 1991 have found no DDT or DDE in the lake's brine. Furthermore, the company says, it has an excellent safety program, and no evidence links its employees to any cluster of illnesses.

The company notes: "Since 1998, Ms. Smith has contacted numerous agencies. ... None of those agencies have notified the company of evidence to support the charges made by Ms. Smith."

Despite her failure to have charges pressed against the company, Smith remains unrelenting in her crusade, and the lab news only strengthened her resolve. Last year, after the lab tests, the Smiths each filed a "serious and willful misconduct" claim against the company in the workers' compensation system.

The company is contesting those new claims and hasn't offered her any settlement. Even if it did, Smith said, there is no settlement that would stop her from talking about what she has learned. Otherwise, "my Creator could say, 'You're a fiery little heifer. I gave you and your big mouth a message for mankind, and you allowed your mouth to be stuffed with green bills, so you are going to hell.' "

"I won't sell my soul for dollars - I am not going to hell. The words 'I give up' are not ones I use."


Once the Smiths got their test results, they focused on a plastic bag that Steve Smith said he brought home from the plant in the early 1990s. In it, he said, was plant-produced boric acid he used to kill cockroaches. He said he put the acid he didn't use in the sealed bag.

The Smiths had the same lab analyze the boric acid in the bag. The lab found very low levels of DDT in the boric acid. The couple believes the DDE got in their bodies during their years at the plant - Rita's 3 1/2 years there and Steve's 19 years, which ended in 1998.

The company rejects that allegation and says the Smiths' sample proves nothing because there were no controls over its collection. The company adds that the amount in the boric acid sample would equal "one drop in a 6-foot-deep Olympic-sized swimming pool."

The company says it ensures product purity with "stringent quality-control testing and monitoring," and there never has been any report of product contamination. The company also notes that Steve Smith grew up in the agricultural Central Valley before DDT was banned - and that the couple lived in the Central Valley for some years after leaving the plant.

The Chronicle shared the Smiths' tests with experts who said the results raise serious concerns. "The question is where did they get their exposure?" said David Carpenter, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University at Albany in New York and an expert on DDT. "These are some of the most dangerous compounds known to man.

"It certainly should be the response of the state to confirm they have been exposed to contamination and to do something about it - get the contaminants removed or get the people removed from the source of contaminants," Carpenter said.

Patrick Wilson, a senior toxicologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the DDE levels in the Smiths, who left the plant in the 1990s, compared with levels in people in the early 1970s before DDT diminished in most people's bodies after its 1972 ban.

"What is the continuing source in those individuals' bodies given the pesticide has been banned for so long?" he asked.

He said that because Rita Smith's DDE levels remain so high this many years after the DDT ban, her level potentially resulted from several factors - perhaps her work at the plant, her diet and any periods when she lived in an agricultural area where pesticides are used.

David Jones, a recently retired associate division director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco, said, "Because the plant pumps arsenic-containing brine above ground, the lake has created potential contaminant exposure pathways for humans and birds that did not previously exist." Another source of pollutants in the lake, he said, could be past dumping of waste into the lake from industrial or agricultural sources.

"There could be a problem that cuts across air-water-land issues, but with the regulatory system as it is - a water board, air board, solid waste board - there is no one-stop shopping, and no one maybe is looking at the whole thing."

Jones said any attempt to link plant workers' health problems to specific chemicals would be very difficult for several reasons: Epidemiologic studies typically need large numbers of people to survey - more than the relatively small workforce at the plant. Many different chemicals have been used there over so many decades. The plant ownership has changed so many times. And many retired workers move away, so their illnesses and causes of death often are not closely monitored.

During Smith's campaign, she contacted California Supervising Deputy Attorney General Edward Weil, who has prosecuted environmental cases for 15 years.

Summarizing the difficulty facing regulators, Weil told The Chronicle: "No one disputes the chemicals in the Smiths' blood, but how did it happen? Some of these chemicals are not ones everyone has in their bodies, and they have high amounts of them.

"But that's not to say how the chemicals got there, who did it, when they did it or whether it was illegal when they did it."


On Nov. 14, 2006, Rita Smith scored her biggest victory.

A workers' compensation administrative law judge ruled that Steve Smith's health problems were linked to his 19 years at the plant. The decision stated: "As a consequence of exposure to PCBs, chlorinated pesticides, arsenic, other dioxin-like chemicals and other contaminants," Steve Smith suffered injuries to his skin, lungs, neurological and other bodily systems. The judge said the full extent of his injuries is not yet known.

The State Workers' Compensation Appeals Board and a state appeals court upheld the decision.

The state appeals court said IMC Chemicals, which owned the plant when Steve Smith filed his case, had ample opportunity to challenge his assertion of work-related chemical exposure. IMC cannot "now hide behind what appears to have been a purposeful trial tactic" of not introducing evidence of what chemicals were present at the Trona plant, the court stated.

The company, now named Searles Valley Minerals, says its counsel and insurance company had "an incredible amount of documentation and professional expertise available to them." But the company said those handling the case on the company's behalf failed to use that information and develop other information to challenge Smith's claims.

In particular, the company attacks the qualifications of one of the doctors the Smiths relied on in Steve Smith's successful workers' compensation case - James Dahlgren, who has been an assistant clinical professor of family medicine at UCLA as an unpaid volunteer since 1977.In his background, Dahlgren has some controversy. When treating some chemically contaminated patients, he uses and defends a detoxification procedure that some critics in the medical community have argued is totally ineffectual. In Steve Smith's case, though, the state court found the chemical company's criticism of Dahlgren's testimony without merit.

Dahlgren testified in a recent deposition for Rita Smith's new workers' compensation case that her DDE levels were elevated, but he focused heavily on her arsenic exposure on the job, calling it "huge." Describing how she worked with arsenic-laced brine in the plant, he said she would have breathed in a mist from it and got it on her body and her clothing - in addition to breathing in "the dust that was generated in the various operations."

He also testified that he thought "it would be critically important that the workers at the plant, as well as the people who live in the neighborhood, be studied for exposures that are still ongoing."

Rita Smith felt vindicated by the ruling in Steve's case, but by this time, she said she was having more health problems herself - exhaustion, shortness of breath and recurring nosebleeds. And she still had not persuaded any agency to sue the plant for environmental and labor-safety violations.

Weil, the California deputy attorney general, says he has found no grounds to file a suit. He added that he understands that both the Smiths are very sick and that Rita Smith has a real reason to be upset. But he said state regulators must focus on "preventing people from getting sick in the first place. The idea is to protect all the potential Rita Smiths out there."

Of the company, he said: "A lot of agencies have looked at this place over long periods of time, and a lot of enforcement actions have been taken."


David Sizemore lives in Kansas, far from Trona, where he was in management positions for 18 of his 29 years at the plant.

In his years there, the former production superintendent says the company placed a big emphasis on increasing the tonnage put out by the plant. "I crawled in just about every tank in my plant, mostly inspecting them for leaks," he said.

About what hazards he might have faced, he said: "We were always told any chemical would dissolve in your body eventually. ... In most production areas, we were exposed to brine on a constant basis. Sometimes you'd get it in your mouth. People went home with a variety of products on them, according to which area they worked in."

Sizemore, who recently filed his own workers' compensation claim against the company, also has an opinion about the incidence of cancer among those who worked at the plant.

Not long ago, Sizemore leafed through a 1979 Trona phonebook - with about 1,100 names in it - and found dozens of plant workers who, he said, had died of cancer. That wouldn't even be a full count, he said, because many plant workers who died of cancer lived in other towns. His own father, a machinist at the plant, died in 1983 of liver cancer. He was 59.

The state, however, says that it has found no evidence of a cancer cluster in the area and that the cancer rate in San Bernardino County in the most recent period for which data are available - 2000 through 2004 - is statistically the same as the statewide average.

Additionally, the company said a review of workers' compensation files since 1990 found that no employee or employee's family member filed a claim of cancer because of workplace exposure. The company also said it complies fully with Proposition 65 - the 1986 state law requiring warnings for exposures to substances known to cause cancer or reproductive harm.

Sizemore, who says he has had skin cancer and a red rash all over his arms, said he was fired at age 47 by the plant in 1993 after he ruptured a disk and was off work for one year. He says he now receives Social Security disability payments and money from an insurance disability policy that he took out while he was working at the plant. The company, responding to a query of whether it fired Sizemore, said he sought medical leave benefits after his injury, did not "request a return to work" and moved out of the state.

Thinking of fellow workers who died of cancer and all he knew about how the company operated, Sizemore said, "I really don't think the company did the people justice. I think they should have taught people in layman's terms what was out there and what to look out for."


Moments after visitors enter his office, Arzell Hale, executive director of Searles Valley Minerals, passes out small samples of minerals wrapped in plastic.

At 71, Hale has worked at the plant for three decades. Over the years, he says, he has learned that open-door policies work well for the company, which was sold recently for an undisclosed sum by an affiliate of Sun Capital Partners Inc., a private investment firm, to Nirma Ltd., an India-based company that specializes in detergents and soaps.

During a plant tour, Hale chatted about what he said makes Searles Valley Minerals a great place to work: "Our employees can say anything they want anytime they want. Some companies deserve unions, but I believe in making unions unnecessary."

Asked what motivated Rita Smith's crusade, Hale declined to speculate but mentioned "as background" her failed sexual harassment suit against the company. Smith counters that it was not her suit, in which she says she alleged that a supervisor touched her breast, that drove her. Instead, she said, she was fighting for proper medical care for her husband.

In his defense of the company, Hale touts its environmental record. He said the company has spent more than $15 million on the bird problem alone. Though the company says it has had 23 spills it would classify as major in the past decade, all spills are given "the highest priority" for cleanup, Hale said. "If you have a spill, report it," he said.

Emphasizing how much the workforce means to him, Hale said he always recalls what his father, a Texas farmer, told him: "Don't ever forget where you came from.' "

"That is the reason the little people are so important to me," Hale said.

Epilogue

In the past six years, the California Department of Fish and Game estimates, 348 to 706 birds have died at Searles Lake each year.

In 2005, Searles Valley Minerals won state approval of an agreement that allowed for the continued bird deaths. If the company finds more than an average of 241 dead birds a year over a five-year period, the state may require the company to pay $218 for each bird above that count. The agreement described what the company is doing to rehabilitate sick birds and scare other birds away from Searles Lake, using cannons, shiny tape and other methods.

The company also was required to pay $300,000 for a new wetlands at the Dirty Socks Duck Club in the Owens Valley, about 55 miles north of the plant. The state Fish and Game Department says that only the club's owners and their invited guests may hunt ducks in the new wetlands area, and the club is not permitted to sell memberships enabling club members to hunt in that area.

Fish and Game spokesman Steve Martarano said, "Taking everything into consideration, we concluded the settlement agreement and mitigation plan would produce the greatest benefit for wildlife."

Since the bird tally began in 2000, Fish and Game's Steve Hampton, who analyzes the numbers, says the bird death rate has remained fairly steady: "I think the fluctuations you have seen have been a result of natural factors such as weather - when there is less rainfall, there is less water available elsewhere, and more birds come to Searles Lake."

Rita Smith says: "The dying birds got my curiosity screaming hot, but the deal the company made with the state about the birds brought out the rebel-belle in me: That deal was a fraud on the people - birds are still dying, and people are, too."

When Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, was asked about the plant, he said: "We are monitoring the situation. The settlement with the state does not bar the federal government from filing civil or criminal actions in the future."

It has been three decades since Steve Smith felt he was doing the right thing by taking a job at the chemical plant - earning enough to move his family into the middle class. By the time he left the job, he said, he was making close to $50,000 a year.

The Smiths now live in the Sierra foothills and say they get by on disability payments, along with financial help from Rita's family.

These days, Steve Smith broods a lot. The company points out that in 2004, Smith was taken in by police for a medical evaluation after he told a doctor he had guns and wanted to hurt his ex-employer. Smith acknowledges: "I was at my wit's end. I told the therapist I wanted to shoot Arzell's ass for all the poison they had dumped in me without telling me."

Day after day, Smith says he has "less than zero energy. It's hard to get up and do anything. My whole body is racked with pain that makes me feel like my skeleton is disintegrating." Smith, who is 6 feet 1, says he now weighs 155 pounds, up from a low of 131 in 2005, when he began taking weight-gaining medicine. Doctors also are watching nodules in his testes to see whether they are cancerous.

For Rita Smith, the future looks bleak.

Doctors tell her that her liver is failing. Her doctor, Dahlgren, says that Smith had hepatitis C before working at the plant and that her exposure to chemicals there caused her condition to worsen, so she now needs a new liver to live longer.

To pursue a lawsuit on behalf of workers and their families, Smith has talked to law firms big and small - but her case is unlike that of Erin Brockovich, a legal assistant who helped residents of Hinkley, a San Bernardino County desert town with contaminated water, win a $333 million settlement against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in 1996. Lawyers often tell Rita Smith that the possibility of this sort of lawsuit doesn't exist because the alleged injuries occurred on the job. Under state law, the only recourse for workers like the Smiths, the attorneys say, is the workers' compensation system.

So far, the couple say, the company still fights paying legitimate medical bills, and the judge still hasn't made a final award in Steve's original workers' compensation case. The company says it already has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills for the Smiths and will pay all bills approved in the workers' compensation system.

In the big picture, the company sees its role as exemplary. "We live and work in a harsh environment," Hale told The Chronicle. "We produce some of the most essential products for human uses, and we're proud of what we accomplish and how we do it."

None of the company's assurances stop Rita Smith.

Lately, she has been lining up former and current plant workers - among them Michael Avery - to file workers' compensation claims against the plant. Avery's claim cites the "company's failure to take steps necessary to minimize the hazards of work injury" and says that its inaction helped cause severe injuries to his whole body.

When Rita Smith thinks of the future, she fears that the couple's three children and grandchildren will come down with cancer and other disorders because the family lived for some years in Trona.

"The bottom line is that employees have the right to go to work and have safe workplace practices - state and federal law require that - and to have full disclosure about the chemical hazards involved in the process," Smith said.

"Only this will appease me: Regulators testing workers and doing thorough investigations to find out what hazards exist in that plant. If they don't do that, they are not trying to find the truth in anybody's community - mine or yours."

ABOUT THE SERIES

Rita Smith first called The Chronicle wanting to tell her story in 2002. She told an editorial assistant who answered the phone that her husband, a former chemical plant worker, was very sick after working at a plant in the San Bernardino County town of Trona in the Mojave Desert. She said thousands of birds had died near the plant - then named IMC Chemicals Inc. The details were sketchy.

The notes taken by the editorial assistant were passed on to Chronicle reporter Susan Sward. Over the next few years, Sward listened to Smith tell bits and pieces of her story over the phone, and more than a year ago, Sward began pursuing the story.

During her investigation, Sward interviewed more than 100 people - plant supervisors, former and current plant workers, some of their families, regulators, scientists, professors and Trona residents. She traveled twice to Trona. She asked the company dozens of questions about its operations. The company, now named Searles Valley Minerals, responded with hundreds of pages of detailed answers.

Sunday

Rita Smith, a former employee of a chemical plant in the Mojave Desert, wages a campaign to learn why her husband, who also worked there, had become so ill.

Today

After struggling for years to understand her husband's ailments, Rita Smith receives alarming news about her own health.

To read the complete series online, go to sfgate.com.

More bird deaths

When California game wardens first began wrestling with the bird deaths at Searles Lake, a similar case was brewing in New Mexico - involving a subsidiary of the same corporation that owned the plant in California where Steve and Rita Smith had worked.

In 2000, the environmental group Forest Guardians filed a federal lawsuit over bird deaths against IMC Potash Carlsbad, which like IMC Chemicals in Trona was a subsidiary of IMC Global Inc., one of the world's leading producers of phosphate and potash crop nutrients.

The suit in New Mexico alleged that the plant there was violating the Clean Water Act by making nonpermitted discharges of mining wastewater. From 1996 through 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates, more than 1,600 birds died on the shallow lake where the company was discharging its wastewater.

John Horning, executive director for Forest Guardians (which since has been renamed WildEarth Guardians), said the moment the group looked into the bird deaths, "we knew nothing would be done" without a lawsuit. He added that the company entered into a 2002 settlement with his group that included a payment of $50,000 for habitat mitigation.

The Forest Guardian lawsuit got the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the federal agency prepared to file its own lawsuit against the plant in Carlsbad, N.M. Russ MacRae, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife senior biologist in New Mexico, said the government argued that the company was violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by discharging highly saline wastewater into a shallow lake where migratory birds landed, drank the water and died.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made its own settlement with the company, the agency stated: "Potash mining in southeastern New Mexico is big business, and it is also creating some big messes that have fallen through the cracks of the current regulatory system."

Under the federal settlement, which ran for three years starting in September 2002, IMC Potash Carlsbad had to pay $125,000 for wetland enhancement. The company, which produces potash for fertilizer and animal feed, also was required to rescue and rehabilitate birds incapacitated by salt and to conduct patrols aimed at scaring away the birds.

Linda Thrasher, a spokeswoman for the company, which is now named Mosaic after the 2004 merger of IMC Global Inc. and Cargill Inc.'s fertilizer business, said the company conducts patrols twice daily in migratory seasons and three times a week in other periods. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the company reported between zero and 10 bird deaths at the site per year from 2002 through 2007.

MacRae said that he believes the company's efforts did cut the number of bird deaths on one shallow lake, Laguna Uno. But he added that hundreds of birds have been killed this spring at another lake - Laguna Grande - "where the company has been discharging wastewater and hazing birds" in an effort to scare them away from the lake. He said this development has prompted the agency to open a new investigation into the bird deaths.

Bird experts have reported that salt toxicosis has been a problem for birds in other areas, including North Dakota and California's San Joaquin Valley.

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