Occupational Exposure to Asbestos in VA Power Plant

When repairs were needed on an old nuclear power plant in Surry, VA, contract workers were called in to do the work. Hundreds of workers were hired including electricians, pipe fitters, general laborers and other contractors from eight different companies. When a dozen workers were caught in a cloud of asbestos after cutting some old pipe, the workers reported the incident. The exposed workers report that they were told all asbestos-containing pipes would be clearly labeled, but they were not labeled at all.

A state investigation ensued and six of the eight companies involved in the plant restoration work were cleared of blame. The company that was in charge of labeling the asbestos-containing pipes and products and that was tasked with safely removing asbestos from the building was Hopewell-based Quality Specialties Inc. and they were fined $4,900 for not labeling the pipes. The state has targeted one other company – Dominion Power, the electricity supplier for VA and NC and the owner of the power plant — to take partial blame for the incident but have not released details of their investigation.

Asbestos was used when the plant was first built to insulate pipes and other parts of the plant from excessive heat. Asbestos has been widely used for such purposes for the past century, but less so in the past 30 years or so since asbestos exposure was definitively tied to mesothelioma and other types of cancer. Asbestos is only carcinogenic when it is airborne and can be breathed into the lungs. Although any amount of asbestos exposure carries risk, mesothelioma victims are usually people who were once exposed to asbestos at a high concentration for an extended period of time.

A spokesperson for the power plant, Richard Zuercher, attempted to assuage the concern of the exposed workers and their families by asserting there was no danger to them. “Most of the asbestos has been removed and replaced with asbestos-free material, including the area where the workers were,” says Zuercher. “There is some equipment with asbestos at the plant, but it has all been abated.”

Zuercher’s statement was proved false, however, after the State Department of Labor and Industry tested the environment and found asbestos fibers on the clothes of the 12 exposed workers as well as in three of the worker trailers.

Exactly how much asbestos the workers were exposed to is indeterminable because the plant’s owner, Dominion Power, did not have air sampling equipment on site at the time of the incident.