Business

Ex-workers cite Attleboro uranium plant radiation for illness, death

Attleboro, MA - 11/272016 - The former Texas Instruments plant in Attleboro processed uranium. Former workers, who claim they were exposed and got cancer, are suing. Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff Topic: texasinstruments Reporter: Dan Adams
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
The former Texas Instruments plant in Attleboro processed uranium.

More than two dozen former employees of a shuttered Texas Instruments Inc. plant in Attleboro that fabricated uranium fuel for nuclear reactors have sued the Dallas company in federal court, saying it failed to protect them from radiation and toxic chemicals at the site.

The plaintiffs — a group that includes the estates of former employees who have since died — alleged they have been stricken with cancers and other serious ailments from exposure to dangerous materials such as uranium that the company handled in fulfilling government contracts at its 100-acre campus on Forest Street in Attleboro.

Alleging Texas Instruments had lax safety standards, recklessly disposed of radioactive and toxic waste, and hid the danger from its employees, the workers are seeking tens of millions of dollars in compensation.

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According to the lawsuits and federal regulatory records from the 1970s and ’80s, Texas Instruments routinely burned and buried radioactive scrap metal and toxic chemicals at the Forest Street facility and at a nearby private dump called the Shpack landfill that closed in the 1960s and later became a Superfund cleanup site.

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The extensive contamination of the area by radioactive metals, waste acids, and toxic chemicals such as PCBs, the workers said, meant they were exposed to radiation and poison simply by showing up for work. They said Texas Instruments did not provide protective gear or limit their access to radioactive areas, test them for exposure at the time, or contact them later when the full extent of the problem became clear.

Aerial Photos of New England
A 1966 photo taken from the air above showed the sprawling Texas Instruments facility in Attleboro.

Texas Instruments “failed to keep the property safe and take reasonable steps to protect all occupants, and intentionally kept secret the existence of these unsafe materials,” the lawsuits said, and that “all passersby, invited guests, and other nearby landowners were exposed to radioactive material and contamination and other toxic chemicals daily.”

A spokeswoman for Texas Instruments and attorneys representing the company in the case did not respond to requests for comment. In legal filings, the company argued the workers’ claims are employee-employer disputes that fall under the Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Act and don’t belong in federal court.

Fiore Porreca, the Attleboro attorney representing the workers, declined to comment.

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Some former Texas Instruments employees have already received compensation under a US Department of Labor program that pays them $150,000, plus free medical care. The program has paid out more than $50 million so far in benefits to employees of the Attleboro facility, mostly to those who worked there between 1952 and 1967.

Texas Instruments acquired the Forest Street operation in 1959 when it merged with Metals and Controls Corp., a local company that made thermostats and motor controls but had recently launched a nuclear division. By the 1960s, it had become Attleboro’s largest employer, with roughly 6,000 workers toiling in 23 buildings.

The division handled a variety of work, such as making strips of copper and nickel for the US Mint. And it also produced enriched uranium fuel elements and other radioactive metals for the US government beginning in the 1950s, and made thermostats and switches painted with highly radioactive, glow-in-the-dark radium-226 for visibility.

Nuclear operations stopped in 1981. Only 1,100 were employed there when Texas Instruments sold it to Bain Capital in 2006 for about $3 billion, and fewer than 200 were involved in manufacturing.

As part of the sale, Texas Instruments agreed to retain liability for environmental contamination of the site. In corporate filings from 2014, the company has told investors its liability was unlikely to exceed $200 million.

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Bain later spun off the unit into Sensata Technologies, which sells industrial and automotive sensors and controls, and still occupies several buildings near the Forest Street campus. Other parts of the site have been cleaned up and repurposed; Bristol Community College has a satellite campus there, for example.

The plaintiffs — who according to court filings now live in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Florida, and North Carolina — had jointly sued Texas Instruments earlier this year along with a number of other former workers, but a judge ordered them to file separate complaints, which many did last week in US District Court in Boston.

One of the workers who sued, James Cauger, 82, said in his complaint he was diagnosed in 2013 with cancer and carcinoma in his nose and mouth, and peripheral neuropathy in his legs and feet — ailments he claims are a direct result of working at the Texas Instruments plant in the late 1950s. Cauger alleged he was further exposed to radiation at the landfill, which was near his home at the time. He is seeking $60 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Cauger could not be reached for comment.

Other plaintiffs worked at the Forest Street facility for decades, and similarly blame cancer diagnoses and deaths on exposure to radiation there.

The Attleboro sites became notorious in the late 1970s after a local college student detected radiation in the Shpack landfill and reported his findings to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. According to federal records, investigators for the agency surveyed the landfill and found “large quantities of depleted uranium and small quantities of normal and enriched uranium were present,” along with containers stamped with the names of Texas Instruments and its local subsidiary.

In 1979 the NRC said Texas Instruments was the “likely” source of the radioactive waste, having ruled out the only other local companies that handled such material.

According to the NRC, workers at the Forest Street plant burned zirconium and depleted uranium “chips” in open trays that frequently spilled over or broke, then shoveled the ashes into barrels that were dumped at the Shpack landfill.

The NRC has said the Forest Street facility was “satisfactorily remediated of byproduct material (i.e., uranium)” by 1997, though other federal documents indicate Texas Instruments is still operating several ground-water treatment and pumping systems there. One structure, the vacant “Building One,” remains contaminated with radium, which must be cleaned up before the structure can be demolished or sold.

In 2012, Texas Instruments agreed to pay the US Army Corps of Engineers $15 million to help complete the Shpack landfill’s cleanup, which began in the 1980s.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.