Firefighters and Other Community Members Exposed to Asbestos

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

The Marion City Administrator/Building Inspector Alan Thomas Ammon and Fire Chief Ralph Walton Cooper III were accused of knowingly exposing firefighters, staff, volunteers, and community members to asbestos at the city’s fire department building. Both have been indicted on multiple charges.

Those charges include misconduct in office, violations of the pollution control act, and conspiracy to violate the pollution control act. They were arraigned, and both given a personal recognizance bond.

Former Marion firefighters Baxley Howe and Christopher McKenzie expressed concerns about their health due to the asbestos exposure. Howe says Cooper had firefighters remove broken tiles that were contaminated with asbestos.

According to Ammons, asbestos wasn’t found until the floor tiles were pulled up after flooding from Hurricane Matthew. After the discovery, the recreation room and adjacent rooms were closed, and a contractor was hired to figure out next steps.

“They should have done the right thing and called a company in to being with,” said McKenzie. “And spent money to clean the backroom. Not expect firefighters and community service workers to do it.”

“We were exposed by being forced to remove the asbestos with no proper equipment. No training. There was no training on how to handle the asbestos,” stated Howe. “And we [were] exposed without any proper training. We were told to get rid of the asbestos that’s shared between the library and the fire department.”

“Firefighters and community service workers were in the backroom scraping the tile up, which was asbestos. It was broken up in several pieces,” said McKenzie. “I raised concern to Chief Cooper, which was dismissed. I told several firefighters, ‘If I were you, I would walk away from this because it’s asbestos.’”

A recent Centers for Disease Control study has shown firefighters are more likely to be diagnosed or die from cancer, including mesothelioma, which is caused by asbestos exposure. A new, national firefighter registry could help to monitor cancer diagnosis in firefighters. Plus, the presumption laws adopted by most states can help firefighters facing these cancer diagnoses.

Ammons and Cooper have not been suspended from their positions, which can’t change until their cases go to trial.

Howe resigned from his position after six years of serving Marion City Fire. He said, “I chose to resign because of the fact that I was ready to speak out. The truth has been hid for so long. The citizens are not aware that we were exposed to asbestos.”