Family sues city in cancer death
By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Charles A. Rose died last October at age 66 of a rare cancer called soft tissue sarcoma.
He contracted that cancer from working with wastewater and dangerous chemicals at the Albert Whitted wastewater treatment plant, Rose's family alleges in a lawsuit. Rose was retired when he died.
While employed with the city of St. Petersburg, Rose was "intentionally and negligently exposed to polymers, chemicals and human waste products known to be carcinogenic in nature," the suit says. It also alleges that the city failed to provide training, protective gear and information that could have prevented Rose's death.
But the city has asked Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Anthony Rondolino to toss out the lawsuit's claims for reasons ranging from legal technicalities to the fact that the suit offers no specific theory for how Rose's cancer was connected to his work.
"You name it, he handled everything," said son David Rose. He added that, for most of his life, his father was "a very healthy man."
He said that the family believes the cancer resulted from "a combination of everything -- all the chemicals that he handled, plus everything going into that plant."
The city's public utilities director, Patti Anderson, said that none of the chemicals city workers use to treat sewage is classified as a carcinogen by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. She said the plant does use chlorine gas -- a poison but not a carcinogen -- and supervisors stress safety procedures.
Anderson said she was not aware of other employees besides Rose claiming they got a disease from their work at the city's treatment plants.
However, both sides agree one of the case's allegations is true: Pipes that carry drinking water into the Whitted plant were discovered to be improperly connected to reclaimed water pipes in the plant. City workers trained to spot and fix so-called "cross connections" at private businesses found the improper tie-ins at the treatment plant in June 2000.
The suit says the improper piping "exposed Charles A. Rose and other employees and the general public to cancer-causing agents, life-threatening contaminants and disease-bearing organisms."
But Joseph Towry, the cross-connection expert who made the discovery, said that while some pipes had been improperly connected to others, he found no evidence that reclaimed water was seeping into the freshwater pipes.
If anything, tests suggested that freshwater may have been flowing into the reclaimed water pipes and diluting the reclaimed water, he said.
"What we found were some abnormalities in values, and we could never determine clearly whether there was a problem or not," he said.
In any event, Towry said, "there's nothing in the reclaimed water system that would be health threatening" because reclaimed water is made clean enough to spray on people's lawns.
Anderson said the city provided bottled water to the plant's workers as a precaution until the piping could be fixed, but she said no one reported getting sick.
The city reported the discovery of the cross connections to Wayne Wyatt, assistant director of environmental engineering for the Pinellas County Health Department.
Wyatt said the city was not required to report the problem. He said he saw no public health threat from the cross connections and so left it to the city to fix the pipes.
Rondolino is considering the arguments of both sides about whether to dismiss the Rose family's lawsuit. He is expected to rule within the next two weeks on whether the case may continue.
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