Weyerhaeuser Asbestos Settlement One Of N.C.'s LargestJan 7, 2004 | AP
Weyerhaeuser Co. has paid millions of dollars to more than 400 employees and retirees of its paper mill in Plymouth who developed permanent health problems after decades of exposure to asbestos.
The workers' compensation settlements, completed last month and among the largest in state history, end years of struggle in the N.C. Industrial Commission between the timber giant and the workers.
Some of the workers spent as many as 40 years at the Plymouth factory, located about 100 miles east of Raleigh.
The workers learned through the litigation that Weyerhaeuser knew decades ago that the mill, on the banks of the Roanoke River in Washington County, had dangerous levels of asbestos but never informed them or made them wear respiratory gear.
When sealed, asbestos is harmless. But if its microscopic fibers can escape, they can hang in the air for hours and sink deep into the lungs when inhaled. Exposure over years can lead to a host of illnesses, including cancer.
In their claims, the Plymouth workers said they worked through "snowstorms" of asbestos fibers as they cleaned or operated paper-making machines every day. Pipes and walls were covered with asbestos that often flaked off.
While the company did monitor some employees with chest X-rays, many workers have said they were not told that their lungs were showing changes typical of heavy asbestos exposure.
Weyerhaeuser also has settled a civil lawsuit in Martin County filed in 2002 by five wives of Plymouth workers who said they developed health problems after exposure to asbestos fibers that their husbands brought home from the mill on their clothes.
In the workers' compensation cases, settlement checks were distributed two days before Christmas. Many workers and retirees contacted Tuesday declined to comment, as did the women who filed the civil suit.
But Irving Spruill, 77, of Plymouth, who worked for 20 years at the mill as a pipe fitter and then as a maintenance supervisor, said he was glad the battle was over.
"They compensated us, I thought, pretty well," he said. "It doesn't give us back the things they took from us. I was a main foreman, and I should have been telling my 21 guys, `Hey, wear a mask.' Hey, I didn't know any better."
Spruill said he suffers from asbestosis, a chronic, often progressive ailment of the lungs that comes after decades of exposure to asbestos. He said he still can do anything he wants, including helping a friend Tuesday restore an old house, but "my days are shorter, and my respiratory system is not like it was yesterday."
When a worker is injured on the job in North Carolina, he or she can file a claim for compensation with the Industrial Commission, an agency of the Department of Commerce.
Commission Chairman Buck Lattimore said Tuesday that he thinks the only settlement larger than Weyerhaeuser's is one with Duke Energy Co., which closed about 600 cases. In 1999, while those cases were being litigated, Duke Energy pledged $800 million to cover asbestos claims in all legal venues.
Weyerhaeuser spokeswoman Susan Larkin said negotiations on the settlement opened in September. She declined to comment further but released a company statement:
"We are pleased that we have reached a resolution to all current litigation involving claims of asbestos exposure by some employees in North Carolina. This solution provides for the welfare of our employees and allows us to contribute to the North Carolina economy by safely making products that meet the needs of our customers."
By law, settlements in workers' compensation cases are not public records, and Lattimore and other Industrial Commission officials refused to release details.
But the full commission had already granted awards in about 75 cases, ranging from about $36,000 to more than $200,000, including penalties and interest. If the approximately 425 total cases at Plymouth settled for similar amounts, a conservative estimate of the total approaches $20 million.