NH man sues CT construction company over mercury exposure

Manafort Brothers Inc. continues to challenge OSHA fine over Schiller Station cleanup
Schiller Station

A Manchester man, claiming to be permanently disabled by mercury poisoning at the Schiller station in Portsmouth, is suing the construction company and its foreman for exposing him to the toxic substance.

The suit filed by Robert Sirois charges the construction company, Manafort Brothers Inc, and its foreman Remi Bauerle, provided him with inadequate safety equipment, dismissing his safety concerns, resulting in mercury exposures as much over 17 times the allowable levels. Both defendants manipulated tests to indicate worker’s mercury exposure appeared less than it actually was, the complaint charges.

As a result, Sirois suffered “permanent lung damage, permanent neurological damage, lethargy, migrants, numbness in the hands and feet, memory loss, vomiting and diarrhea….”

The Schiller station stopped burning mercury to generate electricity in the 1960s. It had removed the mercury fuel, but the contaminated containers and equipment remained. Last year Eversource, then owner of Schiller plant (and not charged in the suit) hired Manafort to clean up the site in order to sell it. The utility did put a halt to the $20 million project from June until late August because of the safety concerns raised. When it sold the plant, along with the rest of its generation assets in January for $175 million, it had agreed to finish the job, which it now expects to complete by the end of the year.

Sirois’ suit, originally filed in Hillsborough County Superior Court on June 21 and removed to US District Court in Concord on July 24, refers to serious and willful citations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at the end of November in 2017, which resulted in a proposed fine of $300,000. 

The Manafort Brothers, a Connecticut firm, is run by relatives of Paul Manafort, the former head of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign who is currently on trial for bank fraud involving business dealings with foreign entities. The Manafort Brothers firm had challenged the OSHA fine, and the federal agency has yet rule on that challenge or reach as settlement with the company. The company, which declined to comment on the litigation, has until August 29 to answer the complaint in court.

According to that complaint, Sirois, who worked as a laborer and burner for the company between March 20 and June 2 of last year, was given protective safety equipment, but it was not adequate.

The complaint — echoing the OSHA citation — charges that the company failed to protect Sirois from mercury on 56 occasions, and, on June 5, he was exposed to levels of 1.7 milligrams per cubic meter of air averaged over an eight hour period. The standard is a tenth of a milligram.

The OSHA citation says some violations were willful. The suit alleges the company used “deliberately deceptive and fraudulent activities” to cover up the mercury poisoning. First it allegedly told employees to drink large volumes of water before testing for mercury poisoning. The suit also charged Bauerle “falsified negative air test” by placing “the negative airline tube into a heppa machine.”

The suit also said that Bauerle allowed workers to consume fluids in room with toxic levels of mercury, and their protective coveralls were prone to tearing and burn holes. When Sirois complained, Bauerle allegedly ridiculed him.

Sirois’ health deteriorated and he has been diagnosed with mercury poisoning, but the company “hired a physician in order to deceptively and fraudulently and dispute” this. And when Sirois was cleared to return to work, it was to the “same inadequate safety protocols” and equipment. Sirois took a voluntary layoff because his working conditions “were so difficult and intolerable that a reasonable person would feel compelled to resign,” the complaint said.

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