A Seattle police officer who claims he has suffered health problems since being exposed to toxic chemicals during the cleanup of a homeless camp in Sodo last year has sued the city.
Officer Timothy Gifford, 38, contends in a lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court on Jan. 3 that he was exposed to high concentrations of the toxic chemical compounds polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) while he worked on a city Navigation Team to remove an unsanctioned homeless encampment along Denver Avenue South near First Avenue South on Jan. 8, 2019.
About five months after the camp’s removal, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) discovered high levels of PCB contamination on the city-owned site where the camp was located. In July, SPU consulted with local health officials and state and federal environmental regulators and launched remediation of the property.
By then, Gifford contends he already was “feeling inexplicably ill” and later was diagnosed with early onset Type II diabetes. Gifford filed a workman’s compensation claim but the city denied it, his suit states.
His 10-page legal complaint incorporates internal city documents showing the city notified as many as 58 other city employees who may have been exposed to unsafe PCB levels at the former camp site. It also contends the city was “well aware of an ongoing PCB contamination issue” in the area, citing Seattle’s ongoing federal lawsuit against chemical giant Monsanto and its subsidiaries for polluting the nearby Duwamish Waterway.
Dan Nolte, a spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes, said in an email Thursday: “Our office intends to investigate the claims brought in this lawsuit and defend the City in this matter.”
Gifford, who also declined comment for this story through his Seattle attorney, Lincoln Beauregard, contends in the lawsuit that he “was neither warned or trained of the associated hazards or issued appropriate protective gear” prior to the camp cleanup.
Gifford’s suit seeks “general damages and special damages in an amount to be proven at trial.” He previously filed a claim for damages against the city for $10 million.
In September, when Gifford filed his tort claim, city officials told The Seattle Times that outreach was ongoing to a list of at least 17 people known to have lived at the encampment at the time of its cleanup. The Times later tracked down and interviewed a dozen former campers, who said they’d only learned about the contamination after talking to reporters. Most of them still lived near the contaminated site.
PCBs were widely used in electrical equipment, hydraulic fluids, paints, lubricants and other industrial products between 1929 and 1979. The EPA banned their use in 1979, but the compounds remain widespread, polluting ecosystems around the world through spills, leaks and improper disposal. People exposed to PCBs by breathing vapors, touching contaminated materials or eating contaminated foods “can exert a multitude of serious adverse health effects,” from skin rashes to auto-immune diseases and probably cancer, according to the EPA.
Will Lemke, a city spokesman on homelessness issues, said in an email Thursday that Navigation Team members were instructed to inform campers who were living at the site about the potential exposure.
“It is my understanding that the team has yet to come across these individuals during the course of the team’s ongoing outreach efforts throughout Seattle,” Lemke’s email said.
But several of the campers have said they’ve encountered city employees during cleanups of other encampments since last summer.
Seattle Times staff writer Sydney Brownstone contributed to this report.