In a picture projected on a large screen at the front of the room, a cloud floated above the Honeywell plant, beyond the reach of water sprays designed to suppress the deadly hydrogen fluoride gases.
If that cloud had traveled toward town, United Steelworkers Local 7-669 president Darrell Lillie explained, it could have impacted the entire population of Metropolis.
Hydrogen fluoride is only one of several hazardous chemicals used at the Metropolis plant to convert uranium into uranium hexafluoride (UF6)itself toxic and radioactivea stage in the process of enriching uranium for nuclear power and weapons production.
The December 22 gas release Lillie described was the second major incident at the plant since replacement workers began running the operation with management last June.
By Honeywells admission the release lasted over an hour, Lillie reported. The water suppression sprays were on for two hours. If theyre on for 20 minutes water accumulates in the parking lot or floods the plant. Neither one happened that day. So where did the contaminated water go? It went into the river.
On September 5, one day after the replacement workers started up core production at the facility, a hydrogen explosion rocked the plant. While company officials denied it, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later confirmed there was indeed a hydrogen blast.
We take pride in keeping this community safe, said Lillie. We are the watchdog in that facility.
In his presentation to the meeting, Lillie reviewed the issues involved in the lockout and answered a long list of charges made by the company against the union.
Honeywell says that its lockout was prompted by the unions refusal to negotiate and unwillingness to give the company time to reach a settlement. Lillie described the unions careful preparation for a possible labor dispute, including meeting with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and drawing up a plan that would give the company 30 days notice before any action was taken in order to ensure an orderly shutdown of the facility.
Honeywell is demanding many concessions, from contracting out work to cuts in medical and pension benefits for new hires. But at the top of the list for union members, Lillie stated, is the reckless attitude the company has adopted on safety.
A booklet prepared by the union and available at the meeting, Communities at Risk, describes Honeywells attack on safety provisions at the plant.
In 2002, at the unions initiative, the Triangle of Prevention (TOP) program was initiated. Through the program, which included increased safety training and involvement of workers in enforcing safe working conditions, workers noted major improvements. In 2008 Honeywell scrapped the program and implemented new procedures that focused mainly on punishing employees for alleged safety violations, the booklet says.
Howard Cook, a union member, stated, What weve had before were small leaks. We caught them and suppressed them before they got anywhere near as large as recent ones.
Its not a matter of whats going to happen, said Metropolis resident Fran Long, Its a matter of when. I have a well. I dont have city water. If Honeywells discharging stuff into the river its going to come up sooner or later in my water.
Many of those in attendance expressed outrage at Honeywells proposal to encapsulate the sediment ponds it maintains on the plant grounds. The companys proposal calls for dumping tons of concrete into the ponds and leaving the solidified results in the ground.
The only way I ever know whats going on is from all of you, said Lorri Jones to the union members in the audience. Her remarks of solidarity reflected the sentiment of the meeting. You guys are heroes.
I know you all are fighting for your livelihoods. I know youve got a lot on the line. If theres anything we can do to help you, Im right there with you.
Contributions are welcome. Make checks payable to USW Local 7-669, PO Box 601, Metropolis, IL 62960. E-mail: email@example.com
Betsy Farley contributed to this article.
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