On Dec. 24, Ava Morris was thinking about her 11-year-old son and making her rounds as a security guard at the Santee Cooper water-treatment plant in Moncks Corner. It was a silent night, uneventful, until she encountered a cloud of chemicals.
“It looked like Christmas; it looked like snow,” Morris said. “In all honesty, for a moment I panicked, because I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just ran straight through it and went upstairs and told the engineer.”
The same thing happened the next night. Two days later Morris, a 42-year-old single mother of two, was unemployed, bedridden, struggling to breathe and facing a stack of medical bills. The “snow” that she walked through was sodium fluorosilicate, a chemical used to treat drinking water that can cause bone damage and irritate the skin, eyes and respiratory system. In large doses, sodium fluorosilicate can be fatal.
Morris’ incident is the second time safety has been questioned at the 11-year-old Santee Cooper water plant, a facility that uses concentrated chemicals to treat water going to about 120,000 homes and businesses in Berkeley and Dorchester counties.
In October 2000, Thomas A. Moore, a 33-year-old operator at the facility, died in his chair during a night shift at the plant. Medical examiners originally attributed the death to an irregular heartbeat caused by a slightly enlarged heart, but they were not told that the day before Moore died, he had noted in the plant log book that an ammonia leak had occurred.
After an investigation by The Post and Courier and Moore’s family, two pathologists concluded that Moore’s death was most consistent with a lethal dose of ammonia gas. In May, a Berkeley County Coroner changed the cause of Moore’s death to “undetermined.”
A short stay
Ava Morris was far from an ideal employee. She had to walk to work or bum rides, and the demands of raising two children often disrupted her work schedule. She was hired by Security Management of South Carolina LLC in November and she had two marks on her record in a matter of weeks. On one occasion, Morris took off work for the funeral of one of her daughter’s high school friends. Another night, she swerved the company pickup truck into a building, she said to avoid two deer.
But Morris said that she was just doing her job on Christmas Eve and the night after. She said the fluoride cloud poured under a metal door and obscured the walkway in front of her. When Morris ran through the chemical fog and reported it to the controller on duty, he said he would take care of it and told Morris that she would be all right, according to a Dec. 30 report written by Plant Manager William Robinson. But her throat started bothering her shortly thereafter, and on the morning of Dec. 27, Morris said she went to work with two memos: one asked for shorter shifts and the other detailing her exposure to the fluoride cloud a few nights earlier and her ensuing symptoms.
“I have been having trouble breathing,” she wrote. “It feels as though something is constantly caught in my throat. … I did not report it because the engineer assured me that I would be OK. Now, I’m not so sure.”
As Morris began work that morning a gate swung shut on the truck – her third strike. When Robert Marek, Morris’ supervisor, arrived on the scene, Morris said she gave him the two memos just before she was told to turn in her badge and gun.
This is the claim that Morris will make to the state Workers’ Compensation Commission in the near future.
Marek’s account is slightly different. In a Jan. 3 statement written to Santee Cooper management, Marek said that he found Morris’ memo about the fluoride exposure on his desk later that morning. Security Management has fought Morris’ claim. The Sumter-based company, which has 600 guards on its payroll, refused to discuss the case, because, it said, the case is still pending.
Santee Cooper confirmed that there was spilled fluoride at its water treatment plant on Dec. 24 and 25, but said its inspectors did not find unsafe levels of the chemical when they examined the plant Dec. 27. Santee Cooper spokesman Laura Varn said the utility wonders about the motives behind Morris’ accusations.
“We really question the timing of all of this,” Varn said. “It’s ironic to us that this happened on the 24th and the 25th and she didn’t tell anyone at that time. Yet, within an hour of when … she was asked to leave, this all of a sudden becomes an issue.”
On Dec. 30, Dr. Jeffrey Santi, a Moncks Corner-based family physician, wrote in a unaddressed memo that Morris had a cough, “bronchospasms” and headaches because of the sodium fluorosilicate she encountered at work.
At the time, he said she should fully recover in five to seven days. But in the following weeks, Morris’ hair started falling out, she developed a rash on her arms and back, and she continued to be wracked with convulsive fits of coughing. At the same time, her medical bills climbed to almost $2,400.
Three months after the incident, climbing a small flight of stairs still left Morris breathless and coughing, clutching at her son’s asthma respirator.
Morris can no longer shoot hoops with her son and she has trouble walking him to the school-bus stop. Her medical bills are unpaid and she has been unable to see a pulmonary specialist. She spends her days making paper flowers and planning baby showers for extra money.
Morris probably never would have worked at the water-treatment plant had it not been for Moore’s death six years earlier. In part because Moore’s body was undiscovered for about 10 hours, Santee Cooper made a policy of posting a security guard at the facility around the clock. It also added other safeguards designed to alert emergency responders if a plant operator is unable to do his job.
Varn pointed out that 2005 was the utility’s safest year since it started compiling injury data in 1982. Santee Cooper recorded 55 work-related incidents in 2005, including 25 “preventable” vehicle accidents.
“The safety of the employees in the work environment in which we operate has always been top priority with us,” Varn said.
Morris, however, said her training did not detail what to do in the event of a chemical spill or how and when to use a respirator. Security Management would not discuss its training procedures, because it said that would compromise the employees’ safety.
Government safety officials were not alerted to Morris’ poisoning, because federal law does not require companies to report incidents to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration unless they involve a fatality or at least three injured workers, according OSHA spokesman Jim Knight. The agency was never alerted about Morris’ exposure.
Morris wants her medical bills paid and she wants to see a lung doctor, but what she wants most is for Santee Cooper to acknowledge that the water plant was a dangerous place to be on the night of her injury. Two parents, a sister and a widow have spent the past five years seeking the same recognition about the night that Thomas Moore died.
“I don’t want justice; I just want somebody to say that this happened … and I want them to stop playing this shell game,” Morris said. “Had it gone another way, I could have died in my sleep and nobody would have known anything but what Santee Cooper said.”
Reach Kyle Stock at 937-5763 or email@example.com