HOUSTON ---"I'm bleeding to death one scab at a time," said dump truck driver Terry Cavanah, 48, of Magnolia.
Heand other workers started reporting serious rashes all over their bodies after working on Alexander Island, a mass of land in the middle of the Ship Channel, just west of the Highway 146 bridge.
Cavanah said clumps of hair suddenly started falling out as an intense, painful rash spread all over his body. He's suffered dizzy spells and fatigue as well.
"It's an itch-fest every day," he said. "You just want to go out to the garage and get a wire brush and get after it. That's how bad it is."
The Alexander Island work is a $3.3 million part of the overall Ship Channel dredging project administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers out of Galveston. The contract has workers clearing and digging out areas of the island to make room for soil that is dredged up from elsewhere in the Houston Ship Channel.
The contract reviewed by Local 2 Investigates made no reference to any hazardous materials or precautions that workers should take in performing the job.
"As far as we knew, it was a clean site," said Cavanah.
He and one other worker told Local 2 Investigates that they were told testing had been performed before work began to make sure there were no dangers awaiting them.
However, the Corps of Engineers and the owner of the island, the Port of Houston Authority, told Local 2 Investigates that the island was not tested before work started.
Charlie Jenkins with the Port of Houston Authority said individual loads of dirt are all tested before they are dumped onto the island. He said if any "hot spots" or contamination are found in those loads of dirt, established criteria will not allow the dirt to be moved onto the island. He said no other testing was done, but, "we are not aware of hot spots in that region."
In an e-mail to Local 2 Investigates, Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Martie Cenkci wrote, "No tests were done prior to the commencement of this contract because there was no apparent need for testing."
More than a dozen workers arrived by ferry each day before the illness on the island, according to Cavanah.
Documents from both government agencies reflect that numerous workers suffered various illnesses, including one whose symptoms disappeared when he was absent from the island, but then started getting worse again after returning to the island.
The Corps of Engineers said it was first alerted to a single sick worker on April 3, 2009. The Corps said that worker's illness was diagnosed as dermatitis, a simple skin condition, and so no action was taken.
Work continued on the island for more than one month. The contractor on this job, Florida-based WRSCompass then told the Corps in a May 14, 2009, meeting that numerous workers had become sick and that symptoms appeared to point to chemical exposure.
In a statement, the Corps of Engineers wrote, "Because of the health issues raised by these workers, the Corps issued a suspension of work on May 15, 2009, and asked the Port of Houston Authority to conduct additional testing, which it did … but the tests were inconclusive.
"The Corps pursued additional testing by the contractor using a more stringent EPA protocol. That testing, which was begun on June 16, 2009, is still in progress until results are finalized."
The work was halted for weeks, but was recently re-started on a limited scale with workers who are wearing full breathing and body-covering gear, according to the Corps of Engineers.
The Corps' statement went on to say, "The Army Corps of Engineers takes very seriously the health and safety of all our workers ... and would never knowingly expose any of our people to a hazardous or unsafe work environment. In fact, we have acted quickly and appropriately to ensure the safety of these workers."
Cavanah and one other worker told Local 2 Investigates they disagree, saying more testing could have kept workers from walking directly into danger.
"In my opinion, if there were any concerns at all out there (with) chemicals, they should have tested on at least a weekly basis, if not a daily basis," said Cavanah. "I've been on other sites, hazmat sites, they check every hour."
He has hired an attorney since his medical bills are mounting and he said no one is providing any clear answers.
Cavanah said other testing should have been conducted because of many warning signs on the island, such as dead fish, a strong chemical smell, and parts of the island where grass and other vegetation are unable to grow.
"It's the most god-awful smell you've ever smelled in your life coming out of there. I mean, it's to the point it can make you throw up. That's how bad it is," said Cavanah.
His Houston attorney, Jason Gibson, asked, "Why would anyone dump some workers on an island that's a toxic soup without warning, without adequate protection, or protective equipment?
"You can't put workers on an island, have them start complaining about symptoms that are associated with chemical exposure and then just keep them on the island. You just can't do that," said Gibson.
He said he is preparing to file a lawsuit on behalf of Cavanah and any other sick workers who may come forward. Cavanah said seven different doctors have been puzzled by his illness, offering no firm diagnosis or plan for testing that would pinpoint a cause.
The contractor that employs Cavanah and the other workers on the project, WRSCompass issued a statement in response to questions from Local 2 Investigates:
"The safety of our workers is our absolute top priority, and always has been. We have been an industry leader in worker safety for nearly 20 years.
"We were contracted to perform clean civil construction work on the Alexander Island. When we learned that an employee's rash might be related to the site, we immediately consulted our business client, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the site was temporarily shut down for an investigation. When work resumed onsite, we and the Army Corps of Engineers required all workers to wear specialized protective suits as a precautionary measure until we conclude our investigation and the site is deemed clear."
Jenkins with the Port of Houston said he has no idea what could be causing the illness, and he stressed that no testing since the illness outbreak has turned up any dangerous levels of contamination in the soil or water on Alexander Island.
Some workers pointed to markers on the island for a benzene pipeline. Benzene is a carcinogen, but Jenkins said there are no leaks and that pipeline on Alexander Island had been "purged and cleaned" some 15 years ago.
He said the pipeline company tested the area after these illnesses were reported, but they found nothing as well.
A June 2, 2009, letter from the Port of Houston Authority's director to the colonel in charge of the Galveston Corps of Engineers spells out that air monitors and additional soil testing are now under way to try and pinpoint a cause of the illness on the island.
The letter states that the Port, the Corps of Engineers and the contractor, "are all now working on a plan to ensure site safety. This plan will protect the health and safety of the contractor's employees while enabling them to resume work."