‘Toxic’ worksite has Verizon employees fearing for lives

The Brooklyn Paper
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The union representing 150 Verizon workers has lodged a complaint against the telecommunication giant saying it had not done anything about cancer-causing benzene that is beneath their Gowanus Canal worksite.

The union, Local 109 of the Communication Workers of America, said Verizon may have violated state safety laws by not informing workers that benzene — a gasoline byproduct that can cause cancer if inhaled — was underneath their workplace.

The underground toxic plume was revealed last week in The Brooklyn Papers. Some engineers believe that the Verizon site is the epicenter of the spreading toxic cloud (see map).

“Let’s say 10 years down the line we get sick and it can be attributed to the high benzene. What happens then?” asked Jasper Clarke, a field technician who has worked at the site for a decade.

Verizon used the Third Avenue office and parking lot as a fuel station until the late 1990s when the cost of insuring the station’s underground gas tanks became too great, workers at the site said. In the decades before the tanks were removed, there were five oil spills there, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

One worker said that employees at the canal-front repair station had not been protected from harmful vapors when some gas tanks were excavated a few years ago.

“There was no warning of hazardous materials, no gas masks, nothing,” said Marion Mike, a shop steward with Local 109. “The only thing they told us was that we couldn’t park [on the site] while they were digging.”

Clarke said he now wondered whether two co-workers who recently died of cancer had gotten the disease from working there.

“They worked here for 10 years before they got sick,” he said.

A spokesman for Verizon told The Brooklyn Papers that the company “was reviewing the reports of the engineers and the history and uses” of the site.

“In all likelihood, we are not the source of the problem,” said the spokesman, John Bonomo, adding that oil spills on the site had been cleaned in 2003.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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