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Cost of negligence: Capco’s silence on how deadly asbestos was leads to plethora of lawsuits from Ragland families

By Jessica Centers and Matthew Korade
Anniston Star, March 28, 2005

Pat and Richard Archer enjoy a little quiet time on the screened-in back porch of their Ragland home. Richard is a central figure in the latest asbestos lawsuit to come from the Cement Asbestos Products plant in Ragland. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star

 

RAGLAND — Every day for nearly 20 years, the town saw more than 30 trucks hauling cement asbestos pipes, on their way to water systems across the country and around the world.

The pipe was strong, it didn’t wear out, and developing communities thirsted for it. Cement Asbestos Products Co. — the centerpiece of Ragland’s economy — churned out that pipe by the mile.

Most days, 100 men worked the Capco shop, many of them neighbors grateful to find a job in their hometown. Side by side, they labored in a fog of white dust with death in its midst.

At first, there were 50-cent masks for those who found the dust annoying. Years later, the plant splurged on 10 of the $35 masks that sealed like vacuums against a few workers’ faces. The men hung the masks up at the end of each shift, letting dust collect inside for them to breathe the next day.

A lawyer once asked Roy Jackson if there were any warnings to let the men know inhaling asbestos might steal decades off their lives.

As a manager, Jackson each month posted a notice from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the lunchroom and by the time clock.

The notice, in its locked, glass case, let workers know that if they had a problem on the job, OSHA was there to help.

That’s the closest thing to a warning Jackson said he ever saw.

Perhaps, he says now, after scores of Capco employees have died and he, too, bears the scars, mandatory pulmonary tests should have been a warning. The tests, passed off by Capco doctors and upper management as rote procedures, should have signaled workers that the tiny, jagged shards in the air they breathed were a threat.

"We really didn’t know," recalled Jackson, who joined the rolls of the Capco ill, dying or dead when he developed asbestosis.

A decade after Capco closed in 1982, as men began to get sick, court testimony revealed that the company they had worked for, that was seen as a savior to the town, knew all along that asbestos kills.

Documents revealed that Capco executives kept information from employees that might have saved their lives.

That knowledge brought modest settlements to more than 100 workers and widows, amounts that left plaintiffs like Jackson wondering if they were taken advantage of twice.

An industry’s denial

Truth is a funny thing to Pat and Richard Archer, who built their financial future with money earned on Capco’s line.

Now, with lungs encased by a tumor that is his job’s legacy, Archer stands a central figure in the latest asbestos case to come out of Ragland. It’s racing against federal legislation that aims to squash it and all that follow. Financially, he and his wife say, they could afford to drop the lawsuit, but others not so fortunate need him to fight.

"They should compensate us for something since they didn’t try to protect us," he said of the asbestos industry. "They could’ve warned us if they wanted to. They knew about it from the time they started using it. They just kept on using it. They’re still using it."

In 1993, as a Birmingham law firm prepared to represent Capco workers in court, a paper trail of internal documents already had tied a noose around the industry’s neck.

Documents revealed that companies hid the dangers and expressed disregard for whether employees lived or died.

The following comment is from a 1966 letter the director of purchasing for Bendix Corporation, now part of Honeywell, sent to asbestos giant Johns-Manville:

"My answer to the problem is: if you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products why not die from it."

Evidence in court was so damning companies acknowledged that their outlook was bleak.

"The documents noted above, however, show corporate knowledge of the dangers associated with exposure to asbestos dating back to 1934," wrote a trustee of the Manville Trust in 1988. "In addition, the plaintiffs’ bar will probably take the position — not unreasonably — that the documents are evidence of a corporate conspiracy to prevent asbestos workers from learning that their exposure to asbestos could kill them."

Warning signs ignored

Capco’s managers testified that they investigated the hazards of asbestos before the plant opened. In 1962, Bond sent the manager of his Alabama Pipe division to asbestos pipe plants in Europe to observe.

S. Davis Weaver, Capco’s first vice president and general manager, applied what he learned to the construction of the plant, hiring consultants who’d worked entire careers in the asbestos industry.

Weaver amassed a file on the health effects of asbestos, including connections to lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare, aggressive cancer in the lining of the chest or abdomen.

He collected articles such as "Rare cancer linked to asbestos" in a 1964 issue of Rock Products, and "A Danger in the Dust — Cancer Doctor Finds New Worry: Asbestos" from the San Francisco News Call Bulletin. They pointed to a rise in mesothelioma, lung and gastrointestinal cancers in asbestos workers.

Weaver testified that the articles were brought to Capco supervisors’ attention and given to workers.

Contacted by phone recently, Weaver declined to discuss Capco at any length.

"We put up notices and we warned the people. . . The (court) records show that," he said. "Whatever’s in the court records are what we did, and we did it honestly."

Weaver denies knowing that any workers became sick and died from asbestos in the plant.

"The records didn’t show that … I don’t know anyone who’s sick – not from that," Weaver said.

Jackson, the former manager, counts 54 dead, most with asbestosis, like him, or lung cancer, and nine diagnosed with mesothelioma. One of the nine was a man he hired. He worked at Capco for just two weeks, sweeping dust across the floor and into his lungs.

"You get a guy a job and think you’re doing him a favor," he said. "I didn’t do him one. He didn’t live through it."



‘Bad publicity’ a fear

In 1970, the new Occupational Safety and Health Administration was establishing an exposure standard for asbestos dust and ordered companies to do dust counts.

In an internal memo reviewed by The Anniston Star, Bond instructed Weaver to check with him before doing dust counts:

"We don’t want to arouse curiosity or concern on the part of the employees. [With] the problems we are having in the coal mines and the dust pollution problems from asbestos, I think we better . . . take all steps necessary to prevent employee reaction with the bad publicity that’s been given the industry."

In 1971, Weaver sent Bond a memo saying that after a "visual inspection tour," which by workers’ accounts would have shown him a plant filled with dust, Weaver felt it was best to put off monitoring.

In 1972, Capco plant manager Horace Beasley testified before the U.S. Department of Labor on the proposed standard for exposure. He testified to Capco’s awareness of the dangers of asbestos and its recognition of its responsibility to warn and protect employees.

"We are desirous of having our employees’ environment as clean as possible," he said, according to court records. "We recognize the importance of having a respiratory protection program for all personnel. Employees should be made aware of all the potential hazards of asbestos dust exposure."

It was around that time that Richard Archer, a machinist at Capco, received a phone call from Beasley at home.

Archer had just failed the breathing test at his annual physical. Beasley told him not to be "talking it up and spreading it around" at work.

At the time, Archer thought his boss just didn’t want him stirring up trouble.

"I didn’t get the point," Archer said. "I realize what he was talking about, now."

Beasley refused to comment when contacted by The Star.

"It was 23 years ago," he said. "I’m not interested in getting involved with it."

Looking for a future

Pat Archer talks about her husband every time he leaves their living room.

She speaks for him — partly because talking too long leaves him breathless, partly because chemotherapy has cost him much of his hearing, and partly because he is too modest to talk about himself.

He has mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. He worked 12 years at Capco.

He stepped out to look for an old pay stub to give his lawyer.

"Mr. Archer," she began. "He set his own things in motion for retirement, little by little. He knew if he put it aside, he could take care of his own retirement."

A lifetime of saving has left the Archers comfortable even while paying for expensive treatments and new medications.

He returned with a check stub from 1969: $84 for the week.

The Archers grew up in Ragland and were classmates at the town’s only school from first grade on. As newlyweds, they moved to Gadsden, where he went to trade school. Back then, he said, if you didn’t work at National Cement, you didn’t have a job in Ragland.

It was the couple’s parents who, in 1964, relayed the news about the Capco plant coming to town.

"Maybe if I get on the ground floor of this plant, I can work on up to have a good job, a future with this company," Archer told his wife.

He worked on the line where the pipe ends were finished. All around him pipe was broken, shattered and cut. Behind him, bags of raw asbestos were opened. All those years he could see the dust, and not once did anyone tell him to put on a mask, he said.

By the time his lawsuit was filed, Archer had been diagnosed with asbestosis – a scarring of the lungs. As is typical in toxic tort cases, a doctor for the defense saw the plaintiffs.

"He told us there wasn’t anything wrong with us," Archer said. "I asked him if he could guarantee that I would never have cancer from it. He never would say. He’d just look at the wall."

Ten years later, a diagnosis of mesothelioma didn’t shock Archer.

He had been expecting it.

 

Julia GoldenJulia Golden reflects on her family’s life following her husband’s death from cancer. Bob Golden’s death left his family in a financial bind. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star

 

‘Not getting any better’

The Archers have put most of their settlement money into a scholarship fund for the children of their church and toward their main goal — a cure.

Richard Archer said he filed the second lawsuit for the same reason he filed the first: Companies knew the danger and didn’t warn him.

Out of her husband’s earshot, his wife gave another reason.

A friend at church told them to think about other men who worked at the plant, men whose families might not be as well off financially. They might need this money, and they were running out of time.

"If it hadn’t been for that, I don’t think we’d go through this again," she said.

For nearly two decades, Capco paid for the roofs over more than a hundred local homes and put food on just as many dinner tables.

It was Bob Golden’s only livelihood. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he went straight from chemotherapy back to the plant.

When Capco closed in 1982, no one would hire him. He was too sick.

He filled his days working on his garden, stripping and refinishing furniture, fixing up his parents’ house for his youngest daughter’s family to live in, and building Broken Arrow Baptist Church. He crawled through his garden the last time he planted his seeds because he was so weak.

One morning, eating breakfast, he said, "Hey, Babe," that’s what he called her. "You know I’m not getting any better."

He had already had a miracle, living with lung cancer long enough to raise his children. He couldn’t ask for another.

"He looked at me and said, ‘Life goes on, Babe,’" his wife, Julia Golden, remembers. "From then on, I saw he was dying."

He wanted her to get her General Equivalency Diploma and get a job so she could support herself. He had nothing to leave her except a $5,000 life insurance policy he’d taken out when he was 25. They had been living on Social Security and disability since Capco closed, but managed to send their youngest to Jacksonville State University.

Julia Golden was a two-time breast cancer survivor with silica in her lungs and no advanced education or trade skills aside from what it took to keep a home and raise three children. Who would ever hire her? For the first time in her life, she worried about money.

It may have been the least of her problems as she faced losing her husband and two brothers from asbestos cancers, but it was the only one that a lawsuit could help.

For most of Capco’s workers and their families, any remaining compensation to ease the burden of medical bills and lost wages will come from the Texas lawsuits. Bankruptcies have eliminated or reduced more than 25 of their potential awards.

The plaintiffs, beaten down by their illnesses and by the realization that their employer valued profit more than them, talk about the situation in defeated tones.

They’re puzzled by the logic behind the version of the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act making its way through Congress. As they understand it, the bill would reduce victims’ awards and let the companies off the hook.

"That’s unfair," said Darlene Lane, who watched mesothelioma kill her husband. "These people lost their lives making a living. Most of these companies, all they’re doing is reorganizing."

"It’ll get passed this time," Rudolph Henderson said of the asbestos bill. "They’ve got more Republicans."

Henderson has lung cancer. His son, who worked just two summers at the plant, has mesothelioma.

"That’ll be the end of it," Tandy Payne chimed in. He has silicosis.

"It’s just about the end of it anyway, with companies going bankrupt instead of paying it off. It’s just a way of avoiding it too," added Jack Daffron, who has asbestosis.

"Government supports the corporations," Henderson said. "Crooked politicians. Poor people ain’t got a chance."

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