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Investigation Reveals Undocumented Workers, Unsafe Conditions in Mich. Oil Spill Cleanup

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/08/main-picture.jpgWorkers at a cleanup site near the Kalamazoo River in Mich., where an oil pipeline burst.

An investigation by the Michigan Messenger, TWI’s sister publication, has found possible labor-law abuses and definite safety concerns in the cleanup of a major oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in south-central Michigan. After the Messenger story went online, the company contracting for the cleanup job fired the subcontractor.

[Environment1] A source says that Garner Environmental Services Inc., hired by Enbridge Energy after its pipeline burst on July 26, fired Hallmark Industrial, a subcontractor. Hallmark had bused in undocumented workers to toil for 12 to 14 hour days, seven days a week, for just $800 a week. The workers were helping to sop up oil and remove debris. The July pipeline break leaked more than 1 million gallons of oil into a stream that feeds into the Kalamazoo – the worst oil spill in midwest history.

Hallmark, a Texas-based firm, brought hundreds of undocumented workers to Battle Creek, Mich., for cleanup, putting them up in hotels and putting them to work cleaning oil-soaked islands and shorelines along the Kalamazoo River. The workers toil for long hours in return for cash payments, a hotel room and food while on the job sites.

After receiving an initial tip from a Hallmark worker who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, the Michigan Messenger visited the rally site on Saturday where the workers are picked up every morning. While speaking to about two dozen men there, half of them admitted to being undocumented workers. All of them asked not to be identified.

On Sunday, a busload of 150 new workers arrived by bus from Texas. The immigration status of these new workers is unknown, but the conditions under which they will work was confirmed by Hallmark workers and by multiple photographs of the worksite.

Workers are kept on the river for 12 to 14 hours a day, every day of the week. Photographs show what appear to be a number of violations of safety standards. In those photos, undocumented workers are seen covered in oil and mud while receiving food and water. In one photo, a worker covered in oil is seen sitting on the white cooler from which workers get their water.

Messenger submitted the photos, which one oil spill certified worker has identified as proof of violations of OSHA rules, to the Environmental Protection Agency and Enbridge for comment. The EPA is the lead agency in the cleanup response.

In an e-mail responding to the submitted photos, David Polish, spokesperson for the EPA wrote, “Thank you for bringing your concerns about worker safety to our attention. The United States Environmental Protection Agency takes the issue of worker health and safety very seriously. We have instructed Enbridge to investigate the circumstances surrounding these pictures. Once they complete their review, we will direct corrective actions if warranted.”

Enbridge spokesperson Terri Larson said, “We definitely identified a few things that we consider safety issues. Some were minor, some were more important.” As a result, Larson said worker safety specialists would be working to address those safety concerns promptly.

In addition, workers told Michigan Messenger that they are forced to use the bathroom in the wooded areas they are cleaning up. Portable toilets are not placed on the islands, and supervisors refuse to ferry workers to a worker rallying point where they have access to toilet facilities.

Hallmark company officials say that all the workers are legal. However, when pressed, Phil Hallmark, a supervisor on site for the company, admitted none of the workers were required to fill out I-9 or other immigration verification documents.

Hallmark said the workers merely provided their names, addresses and social security numbers. They were not required to show identification nor were they required to show verification they had completed federally mandated cleanup training. Hallmark said the workers are not submitted to the E-verify system, which determines immigration status.

“They are independent contractors, they don’t have to fill out any of that paperwork,” Hallmark said in a phone interview. “We get their name, address and social security number. We verify that everyone has one.”

He declined to discuss how those verifications were made, citing privacy concerns for the contractors. Hallmark said his workers are recruited by former contractors and word of mouth. Hallmark did admit the company pays some workers in cash “because they don’t have banks or any way to cash a check here.”

The rally point for workers is a half mile from both a Walmart and a Meijer, both of which offer paycheck cashing services.

Enbridge officials say they reviewed Hallmark’s hiring paperwork on Sunday, and “as far as they could tell it was legitimate.” Enbridge was not allowed to have copies of the W-9 documents filled out by workers or the documentation of required hazardous material training certifications, and Larson said that was because of privacy concerns for the workers.

This is not the first time Hallmark has come under scrutiny about immigration issues.

Hallmark admitted that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) visited Florida operations during the company’s cleanup work after the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion earlier in the year.

“They did an audit of our process and looked at our sign in sheets,” said Hallmark. “Nothing came of that, that I know of.”

Workers in Battle Creek say they were obligated to sign non-disclosure agreements, and provided with a card directing media to contact an 800 number if they were approached by reporters.

This morning, the contractor that hired Hallmark “made an independent decision to end that contract,” Enbridge spokesperson Larson said. “It’s fair to say – and I think it’s fair for people to make the leap – that this was because of allegations related to their business practices.”

In addition to the ending of the contract for Hallmark, Messenger’s source said Garner has issued a directive to all contractors that they are forbidden from talking to the media, and that doing so will be grounds for immediate termination. Larson said Garner had said not talking to the media was its corporate policy.

Meanwhile, some workers were left in Battle Creek with an uncertain future in the cleanup and unsure if they will receive the pay due them for their work on the Kalamazoo River on Monday – before the contract with Garner was terminated.

The Hallmark employees have boarded buses and are headed back to Texas.

Michigan politicians are calling for an investigation into the affair. Rep. Mark Schauer (D), who represents Bedford Township, today called for investigations into allegations that Hallmark Industrial hired undocumented workers in letters to the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

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