Legal action may await former Celanese workers with ailments

Former employees of the Celanese plant in Rock Hill will take part in a meeting today that could lead to one of the largest workers' compensation cases in South Carolina history.

Rock Hill lawyer Chad McGowan has booked the Winthrop Coliseum for the 9 a.m. session, which he expects will attract as many as 1,500 to 2,000 former employees and their families.

The purpose, McGowan says, is to gauge interest in pursuing legal action on behalf of workers suffering from cancer and respiratory ailments. McGowan says those and other health problems can be traced to chemicals used at the Celanese plant, such as benzene and toluene.

McGowan's firm has run half-page ads in The Herald for the past month to advertise the meeting.

"We've been getting calls literally every five minutes since these ads started running," he said. "There's probably going to be thousands more people, just based on the history of the Celanese plant."

This isn't the first time former employees have raised concerns about exposure to dangerous substances at Celanese. This time, though, McGowan says his firm is working with doctors from Duke University and lawyers from Miami and Charleston with experience in similar cases.

With their expertise, McGowan thinks he can put together a more complete argument than in the past.

"I don't think anybody ever put two and two together because they didn't have a wide enough set of data," he said.

At its peak, Celanese employed more than 1,600 people, making materials used in home furnishings, suit linings and cigarette filters. In its final years, a dwindling customer base and competition from overseas markets forced a series of job cuts. The plant closed for good in April 2005.

"It was one of the best places in the county to work," said Charles Moss of York, a former employee who says he suffers from chronic breathing problems. "Back in the '60s, there wasn't anything around at that level. You went there, you started to work, and that was just it. But it was a dangerous job."

Celanese's closest facility in operation is in Shelby, N.C. The company could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Connecting illness with work

To be successful, lawyers would have to prove that chemicals present in the plant are directly responsible for specific health problems.

Cases would be decided by the state's Workers' Compensation Commission.

"You have to show the injury and show it was somehow linked to the job and your employment," said Joe Seiner, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. "Certainly, you're not going to have a claim if you're at your house and you slip and fall. You have to somehow link it to the job."

To defend themselves, employers typically try to prove that other factors could have been responsible, said Ann Mickle, a Rock Hill lawyer who served as vice chairwoman of the Workers' Compensation Committee.

For example, Mickle said, a company may argue that laundry detergent can cause the same skin ailments as chemicals used in a textile plant.

Site being redeveloped

A group of investors bought the 1,000-acre Celanese property with plans to turn it into an industrial park, shopping center and homes.

The group, known as the Greens of Rock Hill, took on liability for the environmental cleanup at the site and already has spent more than $40 million hauling away debris. But the group isn't responsible for Celanese or its operations, site manager Dave Williams said.