Former workers blame Celanese for health woes

Doris and John Kilgore of Shelby, N.C., fill out forms during a meeting of former Celanese workers at the Winthrop Coliseum on Friday.
Doris and John Kilgore of Shelby, N.C., fill out forms during a meeting of former Celanese workers at the Winthrop Coliseum on Friday.

Lawyers on Friday promised former employees of the Celanese plant on Cherry Road to seek justice for any health problems caused by their work at the facility.

"A whole bunch of you got sick," Miami attorney Gerry Rosenthal told about 800 people at Winthrop Coliseum. "I'm sure they're going to say, 'It's not our problem.' We found out in other plants, we made it their problem."

Rosenthal added, "I want you to know, I'm really good at this."

The crowd included former workers and their families.

On Friday, Celanese defended the safety measures taken at its Rock Hill plant, saying it followed OSHA guidelines.

Any exposures to chemicals "were within the OSHA limits," the company said in a written statement, adding that it has not received any complaints from employees "about these matters."

"We are not aware of negative health effects associated with exposure ... at this facility and would not expect any," the statement read.

Rock Hill lawyer Chad McGowan, who organized Friday's session, is convinced otherwise. He has brought in specialists from Charleston and Florida to assemble what he calls one of the largest potential workers' compensation cases in South Carolina history.

The lawyers say they won't get paid unless their cases succeed.

At its peak, more than 1,600 people worked at Celanese, making synthetic fibers and other 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, and the plant closed for good in April 2005.

Developers are now turning the 1,000-acre property into an industrial park, shopping center and homes.

Connecting ailments to work

The employees face a long legal battle -- and uncertain chances for winning settlements, people familiar with such cases say. Even if their efforts are successful, lawyers acknowledge that employees aren't likely to receive any money for at least two to three years.

"This is not a quick process by any means," said Malcolm Crosland, a Charleston lawyer brought in by McGowan.

To be successful, lawyers must show that chemicals present in the plant, such as benzene and toluene, caused specific health problems in each worker making a claim.

Celanese has faced allegations over safety hazards in the past. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the plant was ranked among the top three polluters in South Carolina, annually releasing about 4.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals, according to a 1996 story in The Herald.

Of those 15 chemicals, about 500,000 pounds of benzene, which is linked to leukemia in humans, was released annually through leaks and air vents, The Herald reported. The company spent $37.5 million to discontinue the use of benzene in late 1994.

Doctors from Duke University and the University of North Carolina have been hired to work on the case, McGowan said.

However, the abundance and variety of chemicals at a facility such as Celanese can make proving a link difficult, said Dr. William Alleyne, a Rock Hill pulmonary specialist with experience in workers' compensation cases.

"It's kind of hard to tell exactly what people were exposed to," Alleyne said. "Because many times, the workers didn't know. You've got to isolate to prove causation."

Alleyne said employees have a "decent shot" at success, though Celanese will likely argue that other factors could have been responsible for their troubles. For example, Celanese may contend that cigarette smoking contributes to breathing problems as much as a substance in the workplace, Alleyne said.

"Your typical textile worker who's maybe worked in the mill for 30 years but has also been s-moking ... it's very difficult if not impossible to determine how much is cigarette-induced damage," Alleyne said.

Lawyers told the audience they plan to file 100 claims at a time to avoid overwhelming the state Workers' Compensation Commission, which will rule on the claims.

Many in the audience Friday represented Celanese employees who are now dead. Benny Deese said his father-in-law, Clay Brown, worked in acid recovery at the plant but died of cancer in his mid-50s.

Deese recalled his father-in-law's daily routine when he finished his daily shifts.

"He had to change clothes outside because the smell was just so bad," Deese said. "That's the way it was then."