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Published Report Documents Deaths Caused by Hazardous Materials

July 2, 1987

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ Toxic gases and hazardous materials have killed at least 31 sailors and civilian employees on Navy vessels during the last five years, according to a report published Thursday.

Adm. James D. Watkins, who retired as chief of Naval Operations in June 1986, wrote about fatalities in a February 1986 message that spotlighted Navy problems in handling hazardous materials on ships. The Virginian-Pilot and the Ledger-Star of Norfolk recently obtained a copy of the message.

In it, Watkins said 1,200 sailors had been injured in 2,100 incidents involving hazardous wastes and materials during the previous four years, the newspapers said.

The message was sent to Navy commands throughout the country.

″We have not put sufficient management teeth into this personnel safety matter in the past. I want you to do so now,″ Watkins said in the unclassified message. ″Reducing dangers to which we potentially expose our people through proper control of hazardous material and hazardous waste is serious business.″

Lt. Cmdr. Robert P. Gililland, the chief of Naval Operations’ project manager for the hazardous wastes materials program for forces afloat, said the service has taken significant steps since Watkins’ message was issued.

In the past year, he said, the Navy has reduced the number of hazardous materials used on vessels from 150,000 to about 850.

″A ship doesn’t need to worry about a lot of excess flammable or toxic materials when it goes into battle,″ Gililland said.

The Naval Safety Center in Norfolk - asked by the newspapers to provide a list of sailors killed by hazardous materials on vessels in the last decade - released 20 names, including at least two civilians. But Gililland acknowledged that was a partial list.

Three sailors the center listed died after Watkins’ memo was written. Watkins noted 28 fatalities in four years. The center’s list included sailors’ names but no addresses or locations of the deaths.

According to the Navy, nine of the sailors on the list of 20 inhaled freon. One inhaled carbon monoxide, one inhaled carbon dioxide, two inhaled gasoline or related substances, one inhaled toxic alcohol and one inhaled chlorinated hydrocarbons. In five cases, the inhaled substance was listed as unknown or ″foreign body-smoke.″

In his message, Watkins said wastes were not always properly stored and identified and said personnel were not always adequately trained to handle them, the newspapers said.

Also, too many hazardous materials were purchased outside the Navy’s supply system and an accurate inventory was not being kept, his message said.

Watkins recommended an inventory of wastes on vessels, proper labeling, elimination of open-market procurement and reduction of the amount of wastes generated on ships.

Lee Herwig, chief of federal facility compliance for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said tremendous strides are being made by the military and the federal government to eliminate hazardous waste problems.

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