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Worker sues Atlantic Station

Alleges builder knew about contamination

A former employee at Atlanta's biggest construction project opened a potentially nasty can of worms last Friday when he filed a lawsuit alleging he became ill when exposed to hazardous waste.

Developers and contractors at Atlantic Station "did knowingly, fraudulently and recklessly suppress material facts that Mr. Ron Sack [the plaintiff] was exposed to contaminated soil and groundwater located at the site," the lawsuit claims.

In the grand scheme of the $2 billion project, the lawsuit is small: Sack is asking for $1.5 million in future medical expenses, future lost wages and emotional distress. But the lawsuit does raise questions about an ongoing cleanup at the development, which is being built on an old steel mill site just across I-75/85 from Midtown that had been listed on the state's Hazardous Site Inventory.

City, state and federal officials, as well as smart-growth advocates, have praised the $2 billion mega-project, where developers plan to convert the once-unusable "brownfield" underneath into a mini-city of condos, movie theaters, offices and shopping. The cleanup plan calls for replacing more than 200,000 tons of soil and installing "a host of barriers, engineering controls and covers that would prevent any kind of exposure," says Bill Mundy, manager of the state Environmental Protection Division's Corrective Action Program.

But a handful of workers and one persistent attorney are trying to throw a wrench into Atlantic Station's gears. Sack is represented by Marie Harkins, who's taken an almost quixotic stance against the project.

In November, she got the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin an investigation to see if the site would be a threat to public health. Harkins said she made that request after a former steel company worker told her the company buried 35-gallon drums filled with sludge from the steel mill and hazardous materials in pits 20 to 30 feet underground. The pits allegedly contain substances filled with mercury, lead and PCBs, a set of chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems, Harkins claims.

"I have all of this [testimony] on tape, and all of my witnesses are willing to testify in court," Harkins says.

The employee's claims are relevant to Sack's lawsuit because they could back his contention that he was sprayed with hazardous chemicals last summer while he was a construction worker running big drills at the site.

Now, Sack says he is too sick to work and claims his illnesses were caused by hazardous waste buried at the Atlantic Steel site. According to the lawsuit, the developers knew about the contamination, but didn't tell any of the workers about it.

The defendants include Atlantic Station's two lead developers, James Jacoby and Hillburn Hillestad, as well as Sack's former employer, Morris-Shea Bridge Co., and six other companies involved in the project. The project's attorneys wouldn't comment on the lawsuit because they were still reviewing it, according to an Atlantic Station spokesman.

While the former employee's claims of hazardous sludge pits haven't been verified, Harkins does say she has other evidence that suggests contractors knew workers would come across some seriously nasty chemicals. She cites an August 2000 environmental impact study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that found unsafe concentrations of arsenic, mercury, PCBs and other dangerous chemicals in the soil. In the groundwater, the EPA found vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic chemical that is known to seep as a gas through cement foundations and contaminate the air inside homes.

Such findings pose a sensitive marketing question for Atlantic Station's developers: Might potential occupants worry that hazardous chemicals will waft upward from the soil into homes and businesses?

The EPD's Mundy says the levels of chemicals underneath the development are far too low to ever pose a threat to anyone living or working at Atlantic Station.

But Harkins isn't alone in her concerns. Preston Mason, district supervisor for the Fulton County Soil and Water Conservation Commission, says coating the contaminated soil won't stop all the gas from floating up into the buildings.

"Simply capping the area is not going to resolve the issue," Mason says. "And the evidence that we have of toxic chemicals buried in the ground is that they volatize — they evaporate through the soil, through foundations and end up going through people's houses. I think it's better to be safe than sorry. Take this witness at his word and retest this area."??