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Report: Seattle cop suing city for toxic exposure at homeless camp cleanup

(Seattle Police Department)

A Seattle police officer is suing the city of Seattle, arguing the city put him in danger when it assigned him to clean up a homeless encampment which contained toxic chemicals.

The Seattle Times reports that the $10 million claim states that the city exposed the officer to “an extremely dangerous man-made toxin” when he and at least 58 other city workers cleaned up a homeless camp in SoDo on Jan. 8, 2019.

The officer, Timothy Gifford, was once assigned to Seattle’s Navigation Team — the unit charged with reaching out to the homeless community with the aim of assisting them with services and shelter. The team also informs campers when their site is to be removed, and sometimes assists with camp cleanups. That is what happened in early 2019 at a camp located at 1st Avenue South and Denver Street.

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Gifford, 38, claims that the cleanup exposed him to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a known toxic chemical that can harm humans. He alleges that the exposure to PCBs at the homeless camp cleanup contributed to him developing type 2 diabetes. He was already managing a liver condition, but the exposure allegedly damaged his liver significantly more.

Since the cleanup at a city-owned industrial site, the city discovered the PCB contamination and has notified the other city workers involved in the camp cleanup. The city has also attempted to notify homeless campers who were at the site.

The lawsuit has been filed by Connelly Law Offices and attorney Lincoln Beauregard. Beauregard has been previously known for suing the city of Seattle and its officials. He was behind the lawsuit against former Mayor Ed Murray, alleging that he molested underage boys in the ’80s and ’90s. The controversy is credited as being instrumental in Murray stepping down from office.

Beauregard also filed an ethics complaint with the city when officials refused to hand over public records related to another lawsuit involving Seattle’s now-repealed head tax.

He said that this latest lawsuit is based on the fact that the city did not inform officers of the risk of toxic chemicals in these cleanup sites or what precautions should be taken to avoid exposure to them, and did not provide the officers with hazmat gear.

“This particular officer had dirty boots in his vehicle for months thereafter, and it probably contributed to the inhalation of some of these PCBs,” Beauregard told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson. “So if you’re going to go into a site like this, one of our points and one of his points is, you should’ve provided training and guidelines and standards for how you’re going to go into these places, because you don’t know what’s going to be in there.”

PCBs were manufactured in the United States, starting in 1929. They were banned in 1979. The chemicals remain for extended periods of time and do not break down in nature. The Environmental Protection Agency states that PCB levels above 1 part per billion is a safety risk, according to The Times. Soil tests at the SoDo site resulted in measuring 40,300 parts per billion and 14 parts per billion. Beauregard called this a “Richter scale-level of PCBs.”

According to the EPA:

PCBs have been demonstrated to cause a variety of adverse health effects. They have been shown to cause cancer in animals as well as a number of serious non-cancer health effects in animals, including: effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system and other health effects. Studies in humans support evidence for potential carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic effects of PCBs. The different health effects of PCBs may be interrelated. Alterations in one system may have significant implications for the other systems of the body.

“If you said to any one individual, ‘I’m going to give you a disease that’s going to compromise your health, I’m going to increase the risk that you’re going to have cancer and maybe die an early death,’ I don’t think $10 million is enough,” Beauregard said.

It’s surmised that the PCBs may have come from stolen electrical equipment that was tampered with at the site, but this has not been confirmed.

The attorney said that Gifford went forward with the suit because so many others may have been exposed to the same toxins; the police officer wants everyone facing life-altering medical conditions as a result to seek compensation.

Beauregard believes that the City of Seattle should have to pay such a sum to every person harmed by the chemicals because it did not stop the illegal camps from being set up in the first place.

“Short of getting shot in the line of duty, who is more deserving than someone who is out trying to clean up the streets for us, trying to protect and serve, and then gets injured in this way?” Beauregard said. “I think … it’s a problem that the city is going to have to pay for.”

Reporters Dyer Oxley and Nicole Jennings contributed to this story. 

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