Resources for Patients and their Families

Pawnee Station and Asbestos Exposure

The Pawnee Station in Brush, Colorado is a coal-fired, steam-electric generating station with a single unit capable of generating 505 megawatts. There is another plant on the same property, a 250 MW gas-fired combustion turbine plant called Manchief. It owned by TransCanada and operated by Colorado Energy Management. The output of Manchief is purchased by Xcel Energy, which owns the Pawnee Station.

Pawnee first came online in 1981; as with many Colorado power generation plants, serious steps have been taken to reduce environmental impacts, including the use of baghouses, dust suppressors and low NOx burners. In addition, no process water is discharged from the site; this water is drawn from well sources that are pumped into a reservoir on the site which is used by the Colorado Division of Wildlife for raising fish.

While its environmental concerns are laudable, Pawnee may have shared a less laudable characteristic with virtually all power generation facilities: the extensive use of asbestos.

It is of course possible that asbestos has been less an issue at Pawnee than most power plants built prior to the 1980s. In 1977 when construction on Pawnee began, shocking revelations during an asbestos case proved that the corporations had engaged in a conspiracy to withhold information about the health dangers of asbestos from the public. As a result, the use of asbestos was gradually phased out, at least in industry and construction (although there are still 3000 products on the market today that still contain asbestos).

Asbestos Exposure

Because of its flame retardant characteristics and its usefulness as an electrical insulator, asbestos was used in virtually every industry built through the 1970s. While the use of asbestos saved millions of dollars in property damage as well as spared thousands from the agony of burn injuries, for many it resulted in a range of respiratory illnesses ranging from calcification of lung tissue to full-blown malignancies.

Employees were not the only ones who were at risk from asbestos; they unwittingly brought asbestos into their homes in their clothing and hair, resulting in secondary exposure among family members.

Asbestos diseases usually have a lengthy latency period; symptoms may not be apparent until decades after initial exposure. Therefore, former employees as well as their families are advised to get frequent medical checkups if possible. New tests have enabled pathologists to detect the early markers that indicate the presence of a malignancy, and treatment of mesothelioma in its earliest stages means a much better mesothelioma prognosis.

Because of its high resistance to transferring heat and electricity, asbestos was used frequently in many work sites all over the US. Even though asbestos' abilities as an insulator certainly protected people and property in the short term, the unintended consequences of using it were horrible, as untold numbers of employees developed serious illness and even died from inhalation of or other contact with asbestos. The illnesses associated with asbestos exposure include "miner's lung" and cancer of the lungs; the largest risk of contracting these conditions occurs when asbestos-containing products become friable, releasing particles into the environment where they are available to inhale. Also, workplace exposure to asbestos is a known cause of the deadly cancer known as mesothelioma, which affects the mesothelium, the tissue that lines the pleural cavity (pleural mesothelioma) or the abdominal cavity (peritoneal mesothelioma).

Those who work with asbestos now are generally safe from exposure due to the numerous guidelines regulating its utilization, inclusion in products and scrapping. Those who worked near job sites containing asbestos prior to the implementation of such laws, however, usually spent their work days in sites where asbestos fibers were prevalent, and they typically were provided with little or no guidance about how to work safely with the mineral. Moreover, employees brought dust containing asbestos home with them in their work garments when showers weren't provided at the workplace; the consequence of this was that the potentially deadly mineral also endangered wives and husbands of those who worked with asbestos.

Men and women who worked at this site in the past, as well as their partners and children, are advised to find out about these health conditions and inform their healthcare professionals about their history of exposure to asbestos, because the signs of asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma disease are often difficult to distinguish from those of less serious conditions.


Bowker, Michael. Deadly Deception (New York: Touchstone, 2003)

Xcel Energy Corporate Website. “Pawnee Station.”

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