In this podcast, Paul Kelley, a partner with the Kentucky personal injury law firm Satterley & Kelley, talks about asbestos-exposure in power plants. He explains what people should do if they believe that they have developed mesothelioma due to working in a power plant.
John Maher: Hi. I’m John Maher. I’m here today with Paul Kelley. Paul is a partner with the Kentucky personal injury law firm Satterley & Kelley, which has over 30 years of collective experience in handling cases involving mesothelioma and asbestos exposure. Today, we’re talking about power plants and mesothelioma. Welcome, Paul.
Paul Kelley: Hi, John. How are you doing this morning?
John: Good. Thanks. Paul, where has asbestos historically been used in power plants?
Paul: Well, the main areas where power plants had asbestos, and I’m predominantly talking before 1990, mid-’80s, is going to be in three ways. One is going to be the boilers that were located at these steam generation power plants, the turbine generators and also all the hot steam lines that were located throughout the plant. Typically, these things were covered with thermal insulation. Thermal insulation contained asbestos certainly before 1972, but they contain asbestos all the way into the ’80s. In fact, you could go to a lot of these power plants that still exist today and still find it at least wrapping the steam lines.
Just a little bit of information on power plants, so the old coal fired power plants, they had a boiler that was fueled by coal. The boiler reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It heated water into steam, and then the steam was used to power the turbine, and then the turbine spun and it generated electricity, and that’s how we got electricity. The boilers were typically stories tall, I mean seven, eight, 10 stories, so imagine a 10-story apartment building. That’s how big these boilers were. The boilers generated extreme amounts of heat, a couple thousand degrees up to.
For safety purposes as well as for purposes to retain the heat, they had to be covered with thermal insulation. They had to be covered with other types of asbestos-containing products, sometimes of liquid, powdery material that, when applied with water, it would go around and encase the boiler, and then the same thing with the turbine. The turbine also needed to retain heat and, also for safety purposes, so that people didn’t touch it and burn themselves, the turbines were covered with asbestos, usually an asbestos blanket, except a lot of blankets because these turbines are huge.
If you imagine the boiler being 10, 12 stories tall, the turbine is probably, I don’t know, maybe a hundred feet long, not stories tall, but probably a hundred feet long or so, and so they’re covered with asbestos insulation and asbestos blankets, and then all the steam lines that connected in the building. I mean, first of all, they would heat the building, and then also the steam lines were connected to the turbines and the generator. All those steam lines were, again, extremely hot, and so they were all covered in asbestos.
People who installed the thermal insulation on these products, they were exposed. People that were around when that product was installed, they were exposed. People who were there when things were taken off, replaced, they were all exposed. You had asbestos containing gaskets all throughout the facility. All these pipes had to be connected and, again, because of the high heat that was generated, two pipes connected would have a gasket sealed in between the two pipes and, for many years, those things contain asbestos.
You probably have driven by a powerhouse before and see something called a precipitator or a smokestack and you see basically smoke coming out of it. Those things contain asbestos. They had lots of firebrick and refractory. Sometimes, the actual piece of equipment itself was made of an asbestos type concrete or cement, so unfortunately power plants were loaded with asbestos for decades, probably from the 1930s all the way to present day, unlikely the new asbestos is being installed anywhere, but certainly old asbestos.
John: Right. You mentioned that there still might be some steam lines and things like that that are aligned with asbestos even today. Do some power plants still use equipment in parts with asbestos in them?
Paul: Absolutely. Again, I think that, probably, the boilers and turbines, they are using other type of things, but the steam lines, if there hasn’t been a reason to remove that steam line, it still contains asbestos today. Lots of times, they just cover it with some sort of encapsulating material and hope that nobody ever really needs to work with it, but it’s still there. Gaskets are probably still around. Some of the old piping that contains asbestos is probably still around.
The good news is I wouldn’t expect anybody to be installing anything brand new that contains asbestos anymore, but, certainly, anybody that works in a powerhouse built before 1980 needs to be very cognizant of their surroundings and what materials they’re working with and around and at least be inquisitive as to whether or not that contains asbestos, because I get calls like that all the time.
I’m just amazed in 2022 that I’ll get a call from someone that says they worked in a powerhouse or some other type of place and say, “They made me remove this insulation around these pipes and then, three weeks later, OSHA came in and said, ‘Oh, that’s asbestos.’ Well, I’ve just spent two days tearing it all out.”
People need to be cognizant of their surroundings and not be afraid to ask their employer or any contractors around what’s actually here, what is this that I’m doing because there’s still a pretty good chance that they can encounter asbestos and, unfortunately, the consequences are deadly and they won’t be fully reached for another 20 or 30 years.
John: Right, so what are some of the ways that workers at power plants could be exposed to asbestos?
Paul: Yeah. The main ways were when they installed all the equipment, and, again, this could be in the 1950s or ’60s, it could have been certainly in the 1970s, but because of the massive size of these boilers and turbines, I mean, it wasn’t a weekend job to come in and insulate these machines. I forgot to mention that lots of times inside the boilers had asbestos in them. They had firebrick and refractory. All that stuff contained asbestos.
There was always a schedule of events, and there’s the metal erection of the boiler and then, when the boiler is finally erected and put together, really the last thing that happens is the insulation comes on, and so all the people, whether they were the actual insulators themselves or whether they were people that were operating other units within the power plant that had already been put together, electricians, millwrights, plumbers, pipe fitters, I mean all those crafts are all exposed when they’re putting those materials on.
In the 1950s and ’60s, companies were not terribly safety conscious in how they applied those materials. They would just put them on and wrap them and cut all the insulation. I mean, it didn’t just come in nice, convenient sections. They would’ve to saw, cut, drill, tear. There was, quite frankly, just a massive exposure.
John: They wouldn’t have been wearing masks at the time or anything either probably, right?
Paul: Most wouldn’t. I mean, we’ve represented more than 20, 25 people over the years that have worked in a powerhouse. If they were given a mask, it was a paper mask. It was not a filtered or air purifying respirator that would really protect somebody from exposure, and they rarely were told why they were given this mask. They were rarely made to wear the mask. Sometimes, they just got the mask and said, “Oh, you can wear this if you want.”
Don’t forget that, again, the temperatures in these powerhouses are extreme and wearing anything more than what you needed to was hot. We would get a lot of complaints from folks that, “Gosh, wearing a mask, or even if they had given me a respirator, I mean, it was difficult to do because it was so hot and it was so uncomfortable, and then a full respirator is a pretty bulky piece of equipment, and so it’s hard to get in small spaces in those sort of things,” but, universally, what I have been told by numerous people is, “Gosh, had they told me that this was to protect me from something that was going to cause me to get sick 20 or 30 years down the road and told me how devastating that illness could be, I most certainly would’ve worn this mask or respirator.”
Unfortunately, everybody in the chain failed. The employer failed. The manufacturer of the equipment and specified the asbestos, they failed. The companies that made the asbestos blankets and all the refractory and fire brick, they failed. The outside contractors that installed it failed. You’ve got numerous entities in the chain that all had knowledge and all had opportunities to notify the workers of the risks associated and either at least give them some knowledge on how to protect themselves or, even better, protect them as part of what they were doing, and they didn’t do it.
We get calls from people, if you can believe it, even in 2022. I get calls from people that were exposed in the 1950s that developed mesothelioma in their 80s and 90s. Even more devastating than that though is we get calls from their kids that say, “I was born in 1954. My dad worked on the construction of a powerhouse,” which by the way takes eight, nine, 10 years to fully build a powerhouse. We have some good examples here in Kentucky, but usually, given the size of the area that they’re supposed to produce electricity, there’s five or six units. What that means is there’s five or six boilers. There’s five or six turbines. There’s all that piping that’s associated with those turbines. There’s five or six precipitators.
You’ve got all this equipment, and so usually what happens is they build a unit, it takes a couple years to build that unit, and they start operating that unit, and so you’ve got a whole group of people that’s operating the power plant and then you’ve got another group of people that’s building the next unit. They usually just build one at a time. They’ll build one, work on another, finish that one and then start on the next unit. If you’ve got a powerhouse that has five units, it probably took upwards of seven or eight years to build that powerhouse and, sometimes, some of those people were there during the construction of all five of them in some capacity, so we’ll get calls from their kids that say, “I was born in 1955 and, from 1958 to 1966, my dad was involved in the construction of this particular powerhouse, and he had lots of asbestos exposures in my understanding.”
I say, “Well, of course, he did because I know that powerhouse, and I know that powerhouse had, unfortunately, a lot of asbestos in it, and then someone in their 40s or 50s is diagnosed with this devastating disease and they didn’t do anything other than be born and have the misfortune of living in a house with a family member that went to work every day to do an honest day’s work unknowingly exposed to asbestos themselves and unknowingly bringing it home to their family members, and then they develop cancer and have to deal with it.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to prove the exposure because the family member, the father or mother may be deceased, but that’s what we’re good at and that’s what we’ve been able to figure out for most of the powerhouses in Kentucky, where the exposure was, how people would’ve been exposed and, certainly, how to find people that can demonstrate that particular person’s exposure.
John: Right, and those family members would get that secondary exposure to asbestos because the workers, like you said, would be going to work every day at the power plant and working on this material, and then it would get on their clothes and things like that, and then they’d come home and do the laundry or shake off the dust off their clothes, and then that would get into the air inside the house, and that’s how the family members could be exposed.
Paul: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. Lots of times, the powerhouses did not give or require changing of clothes or give uniforms or anything like that, so people were just wearing their own clothes to work, and then they come home and either they wash them themselves or sometimes they would give them to their spouse or even their kids. All that dust, I mean, I hear it all the time, “We have to shake the dust out.” Back in those days, it would get into the carpet of your home. It would get into the furniture and those sorts of things.
Once asbestos is in your home, I mean, you can’t get it out. You especially can’t get it out if you don’t really know it’s there. I mean, a regular Hoover vacuum in the 1950s wasn’t going to remove asbestos from the house. All it was going to do was swirl it up and do something that we call re-entrainment, which means that dust that’s on the floor, when it’s disturbed, gets re-entrained back into the breathing zone, and so people are exposed that way and they didn’t know it.
The only way that you can really completely clean asbestos from anywhere, whether it’s your home, a power plant, industrial center, any place is to have specially made equipment that is designed to remove asbestos. No families had that kind of equipment for their house at any point in time nor should they be expected to have it because they didn’t know that that’s what they were having to deal with. The stark reality is, once it got into your home, it was there and you could continue to be exposed for years, even years after the family member that worked in the power plant no longer worked there anymore. I mean, it’s there. You’re stuck with it. You just don’t know it is the problem.
John: Right. Are there specific power plants where asbestos exposure has been documented in particular?
Paul: Absolutely. As I mentioned before, we’ve represented probably 25, at least 25 people that were exposed in power plants throughout Kentucky. For the most part here in Louisville, which is where I’m at, you’ve got the Louisville Gas and Electric. It was and still is the electric company here, and there were several powerhouses. One of the biggest ones was the Cane Run plant and then also the Mill Creek plant. Cane Run construction was started in the 1950s. Mill Creek was started construction in the late 1960s, but both of those plants had all the same type of equipment that we’re talking about here. Kentucky Utilities, which is another power-generating company that operated outside of the Louisville area, it had the Ghent powerhouse, and the Ghent powerhouse, again, was being constructed in the early to late 1960s.
I can tell you stories about some of the things that we’ve uncovered about these power plants. Perhaps, that’s for another day, but what I will tell you is that, at least with respect to some of these places that they were supposed to be non-asbestos and, when it became critical from a timing standpoint that we needed to get this powerhouse built, decisions were made, “We’re going to use asbestos because it’s convenient and it’s available right now,” rather than the non-asbestos as the spec. That’s not just the power plant problem. That’s the engineer’s problem. That’s the supplier-of-the-materials’ problem. It’s not just the particular power plant at issue that creates that.
In addition to the ones I’ve talked about, I mean, the D.B. Wilson Station in Ohio County, Kentucky, which is towards western Kentucky, the E.W. Brown power plant in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, the Kenneth C. Coleman plant in Hancock County, the Paradise Steam plant in Paradise, Kentucky, you’ve probably heard of the John Prine song, Paradise, and it’s about this coal mining town in Paradise, Kentucky, the Robert Reid Power Plant, Trumbull County Generating Center, and then the Shawnee Fossil Plant in Paducah, Kentucky, so we’ve worked on cases involving these and many others and, quite frankly, none of them are unique or different. They all have the same types of asbestos materials. They all were designed in a similar way. They all were designed by companies for the most part that should have known better. They were insulated by companies that should have known better. They lack safety controls. They lack education and, as a result, many workers and several of those workers’ family members have been diagnosed and suffered from mesothelioma.
John: What should someone do if they believe that they got mesothelioma from working in a power plant?
Paul: Sure. Again, I think that we’ve had a lot of experience working on these kinds of cases. I would certainly welcome the opportunity to talk to you or your loved one who is diagnosed with this disease. I think we can help. I think that we know a lot of information concerning where asbestos was, when it was put in, who put it in. Certainly, from a standpoint of whether you want to pursue litigation or not, you should talk to a lawyer immediately, and you should talk to a lawyer that has experience with these places.
Certainly, what I tell everybody, and I think this is always important, when this diagnosis comes in, people are going to be confused. They’re going to be devastated. They’re probably going to get a lot of bad news about what the prognosis is in the future, and so it’s important, A, to develop your treatment plan and to figure out what doctors you’re going to go, figure out where you’re going to go to out of state for treatment, any surgeries. That’s critical, and that’s certainly what people ought to do is make sure that they have their medical situation absolutely locked in so they can do everything they can do to get better, but they need to contact a lawyer and they need to get going.
Unfortunately, time is always of the essence. There’s a statute of limitations applicable that requires people to file cases within a certain period of time. In Kentucky, it’s pretty much a year from the date of diagnosis. There are some caveats to that, but I tell everybody you can’t go wrong if you get your case filed within a year of your diagnosis. The stark reality is you don’t want to wait a year. You want to get that case filed as soon as possible both because your health may deteriorate to the point that you can’t provide information concerning your exposure. If we’re talking about people who had exposures in the ’50s or ’60s, any witnesses that are available who are probably in their 60s, 70s, 80s in age. Finding people that can provide information or corroborate your experience is important. It’s just that it’s unfortunate, and I wish that there was something that I could tell folks to say, hey, you got time and you can take your time to figure it all out, but, unfortunately, the reality is that you can’t.
When you hire us, and I tell this to every client, and it’s something that I feel very strongly about, you hire us, and you can worry about what you need to worry about. You need to worry about your health. You need to worry about getting better. You need to worry about the things that you need to do for your family and that your family needs to do for you. You let us worry about your case. There will be a time and a place where, yes, you have to worry about it yourself, and there are certain things that we need help from our clients so that we can help them, but we live with the case every day. You live with your medical treatment. You live with doing the things that you can do to get better, and let us work on your case. Let us worry about your case. I take every one of them seriously. I treat everybody like it was my own family. Because we’ve done this so many times, we just know how devastating the impact is, and one less thing to worry about is one less thing to worry about.
John: All right. Well, that’s really great information, Paul. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Paul: Thanks, John. Have a great day.
John: For more information about mesothelioma and asbestos exposure, visit the law firm of Satterley & Kelley at satterleylaw.com or call 800-655-2117.