Seattle police officer assigned to clean up homeless camps files $10 million claim, alleges polluted site made him sick

By Lewis Kamb   |  Originally published in Seattle Times

A Seattle police officer filed a $10 million claim against the city on Wednesday, alleging it negligently exposed him to “an extremely dangerous man-made toxin” by assigning him and dozens of other city workers to clean up a homeless encampment in the Sodo neighborhood this year.

Officer Timothy Gifford, a former member of the city’s Navigation Team tasked with helping remove unsanctioned homeless camps, contends he was exposed to high concentrations of the toxic chemical compounds polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) during the Jan. 8 cleanup of the camp in a gravel lot along Denver Avenue South near First Avenue South.

As a result of the alleged exposure, Gifford claims, he has been diagnosed with early onset Type 2 diabetes and now generally suffers from poor health. The 5-foot-6, 159-pound officer previously had been in good physical health, managing a lifelong liver condition during his more than seven years in police work, said his attorney, Lincoln Beauregard.

“The exposure to these toxins damaged his already susceptible liver even further,” Beauregard said. “Now, he faces ongoing medical care.”

A spokesperson for the city’s Finances and Administration Department, which handles tort claims, said Wednesday the department doesn’t comment on active claims or lawsuits.

City records and officials have acknowledged the homeless-encampment removal occurred, and separately, that the city-owned industrial lot where the camp stood was later found to be contaminated, requiring ongoing environmental remediation. Spokespeople for Seattle Public Utilities and the city’s Homelessness Emergency Response project also addressed questions posed by The Times this week, saying it has since notified dozens of city workers about their potential exposure to PCBs.

The city’s efforts to identify and notify homeless people who camped there remains ongoing, the spokespeople added.

Gifford’s claim for damages, which incorporates internal city documents indicating as many as 58 other city employees may have been exposed to unsafe PCB levels at the site, states he “was neither warned or trained of the associated hazards or issued appropriate protective gear” prior to the camp cleanup in January.

Now assigned to the police department’s Harbor Patrol Unit, Gifford was among the city’s Navigation Team of police officers and outreach workers assigned to coax homeless campers into shelters and remove encampments the city has deemed unsafe. The city formed the team in February 2017 as it intensified efforts to clean up and remove dozens of homeless encampments — from small one- and two-shelter camps to those with multiple tents — as part of a strategy to address Seattle’s homelessness crisis.

At the time of the January cleanup, the city said at least 17 homeless people had been living at the rectangular gravel lot along Denver Avenue South, near where First Avenue South passes over it and spans a rail yard and train tracks east of the Duwamish Waterway.

About five months after the cleanup, Seattle Public Utilities source control inspector Michael Jeffers smelled strong odors at the site, prompting him to collect soil samples. After test results found extremely high levels of PCBs, the city fenced off the area, consulted with state and federal environmental regulators and launched a cleanup effort, according to the city.

The highest concentration of PCBs was found in Jeffers’ initial sample taken from a roadway shoulder, which amounted to 40,300 parts per million, records show. Subsequent samples measured far lower concentrations, with the highest at 14 parts per million, SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register said in an email.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers PCB levels above 1 part per million a safety concern, said Dave Bartus, an EPA toxic cleanup project coordinator.

“There was definitely a need for an immediate cleanup,” Bartus said in a phone interview this week. “It was more or less an emergency response.”

How and when the site was contaminated isn’t known. Officials involved with the cleanup suspect a homeless camp resident salvaging metal may have disassembled an electrical transformer and drained contaminated fluids from it, Bartus said.

“We don’t mean to cast aspersions on anybody,” Bartus said, “but that was the best we could come up with.”

On July 2 — 12 days after the city fenced off the site — Assistant Police Chief Adrian Diaz sent an email to Gifford and a dozen other city employees, including several other Navigation Team members. The email notified the city workers to contact a department lieutenant who was “working with King County Public Health and other City departments to determine the level of risk and next steps in the event of an exposure.”

By then, Gifford already had been “feeling inexplicably ill, and sought medical treatment to determine the cause,” according to his claim. “According to Officer Gifford’s medical providers, he was diagnosed with the otherwise inexplicable onset of Diabetes Type II.”

Gifford’s claim cites a medical research study led by Dr. Allen E. Silverstone in Anniston, Alabama, that links exposure to PCBs as a possible cause of increased diabetes among Anniston’s population.

“My client’s objective for filing this claim isn’t solely about his own medical needs,” Beauregard said. “He wants to make sure that the other city workers who may have been exposed know that they could be sick, too, and he wants the city to put protocols in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Register said in her email Wednesday that the city has notified about 60 city employees and six vendors about the contamination, and also has attempted to reach the homeless people who were believed to be living on the site.

Primarily manufactured in the United States by chemical giant Monsanto, PCBs were widely used in electrical equipment, hydraulic fluids, paints, lubricants and other industrial products between 1929 and 1979. The EPA banned the use of PCBs in 1979, but the compounds remain widespread, polluting ecosystems around the world through spills, leaks and improper disposal.

Once in the environment, PCBs aren’t readily broken down and can cycle between air, water and soil for decades and can be carried long distances. People become exposed to PCBs by breathing vapors, touching contaminated materials or eating contaminated food, such as fish and dairy products. PCBs “can exert a multitude of serious adverse health effects,” from skin rashes to auto-immune diseases and probably cancer, according to the EPA.

Gifford’s tort claim liberally cites the city’s own lawsuit against Monsanto to bolster his contentions that city officials were “well aware of an ongoing PCB contamination issue in the Duwamish River region.”

The city sued Monsanto and its subsidiaries in 2016, alleging in a federal complaint that Monsanto had known PCBs were dangerous for years, but concealed that and continued to manufacturer them. The lawsuit blames the Monsanto companies for polluting Seattle’s Duwamish River, which has been declared a federal Superfund site posing significant risks to wildlife and people. The suit contends Monsanto should be held accountable for the multiple millions of dollars facing the the city in associated costs to clean up the waterway.

Lewis Kamb: 206-464-2932 or [email protected]; on Twitter: @lewiskamb.