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Class says Missouri electric company exposed workers to asbestos

A Missouri man just filed a potential class-action lawsuit against Empire District Electric Co., seeking medical monitoring after the company allegedly knowingly exposed workers at its Riverton plant to asbestos and other hazardous materials. The case is particularly interesting because the plaintiff is not sick. In fact, no allegations have yet been brought forward claiming any asbestos-related disease or other illness, but the man contends that he and other workers deserve to have their health monitored for those issues.

Indeed, mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer and similar asbestos-related diseases are typically not apparent for years, or even decades. The workers have legitimate concerns that they may find themselves stricken by a deadly disease later in life.

The man who brought the lawsuit has worked for Empire since 2006, but as an energy trader for the first five years. It was only when he was transferred to the Riverton plant in 2011 that he was in a position to be exposed to asbestos. He worked as an operator at that plant for less than a year before transferring to a call center -- and apparently for good reason.

According to the lawsuit, the Riverton plant was riddled with asbestos-containing insulation, as are many older power plants. Over time, the asbestos has begun to peel and flake, which could expose workers to “dangerous concentrations of asbestos fibers,” the man says.

In addition, the man says that he and other workers were directly exposed to asbestos and other potentially hazardous materials during the plant’s 2011 conversion from coal to natural gas. The workers were apparently instructed to remove asbestos-laden insulation from wiring, to scrape out boilers, and to test materials containing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs by drilling into them. All these tasks were performed without any training or safety equipment.

Further, the man makes an alarming allegation that the plant manager instructed the workers to unwind the wire from the asbestos-laden insulation by hand and to make it “disappear” in order to avoid alerting environmental oversight personnel. He says the manager sought “plausible deniability” should any asbestos materials be found.

The man says that, as a result, “hazardous contaminants infiltrated Empire’s employees, their personal effects, clothing, and the food and water they ingested.”

The judge hasn’t yet certified a class-action, but he did issue an injunction ordering Empire not to destroy any potential evidence. The company has declined to comment on pending litigation.

Source: The Joplin Globe, "Employee sues Empire District Electric Co.; lawsuit claims exposure to harmful materials at Riverton plant," Jeff Lehr, Sept. 19, 2013

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