Military aircraft laser paint stripper

The Robotic Laser Coating Removal System vaporizes paint in a self-contained process that significantly reduces environmental hazards to military aircraft maintainers, the Air Force says. Such a system is now in use at Hill Force Base, replacing old manual processes. Defense contractors General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin were sued Aug. 8, 2018, by an Ogden woman who says her husband died of cancer after working as an aircraft "bead blast" paint-stripper for 15 years at Hill Air Force Base.

A Utah woman has sued two major defense contractors over the cancer death of her husband, who worked for 15 years blasting paint, rust and corrosion off military aircraft.

Cynthia McKenney’s civil suit said the Hill Air Force Base employee died of lung cancer, possibly contracted by exposure to cadmium and chromium-6.

RELATED: Utah drinking water contains too much cancer-causing chromium-6, report says

Richard A. McKenney, of Ogden, was 61 when he died Aug. 9, 2017, two years after he was diagnosed with lung cancer, said the suit, filed Aug. 8 in 2nd District Court in Farmington.

General Dynamics Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. are named as defendants in the wrongful death suit. Planes manufactured by the companies include the F-16, F-22, C-130 and F-35, which have been based or maintained at Hill.

“The coatings on the aircraft included cadmium and chromium-6 and other potentially hazardous metals and substances,” the suit said, and one of the paint-stripping agents used contained cadmium.

The substances are known carcinogens, the suit said. McKenney, who worked in the “bead blast” shop since 1999, developed cancer in his lungs, kidneys and adrenal glands, according to the suit.

McKenney had few risk factors associated with cancer, the suit said — he did not smoke, drink or use illicit drugs.

Two co-workers in the same shop also died of cancer, the suit said.

In a May 31, 2018, letter to Cynthia McKenney, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs said it determined her husband’s death was a result of his on-the-job exposure to cancer-causing chemicals and she therefore would receive benefits under the Federal Employees' Compensation Act, the suit said.

Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics controlled the work materials and Richard McKenney’s exposure at the Hill work site and managed his tasks and responsibilities, the suit said.

The defendants owed the worker a duty of care and failed to train him about the hazardous nature of the chemicals and precautions needed to reduce potential health risks, according to the suit.

The complaint seeks unspecified monetary damages to be determined at trial.

The Air Force and Hill Air Force Base are not named as defendants in the suit.

Base spokesman Kendahl Johnson on Friday provided information about improvements made to the paint-stripping operation as of early 2018.

In a Feb. 6, 2018, document, the Air Force said it completed a seven-year research and development program to enable “the safer and more efficient removal of paint from F-16 aircraft.”

It involves a laser-equipped robotic arm that vaporizes paint layer by layer, and paint waste and chemicals are vacuumed into the tool.

The automated process “removes the direct human element, both in terms of error and exposure,” the document said. “Instead, operators guide the effort from a computer console in a nearby control room.”

The longstanding manual procedures “are time-consuming and create a large amount of potentially hazardous waste material,” the document said, adding that the Air Force began using the new process on F-16s at Hill.

A March 2016 Air Force document addressed the problem of chromium, one of the substances blamed in the McKenney lawsuit.

“Non-chromium coatings and materials are increasingly important to the Air Force because of the harmful nature of chromate-based products,” the document said.

Chromium is on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of hazardous industrial chemicals “due to its toxicity to humans if inhaled or otherwise ingested,” the document said.

In 2009, a Department of Defense directive restricted the use of chromium-based compounds on military vehicles and weapon systems, according to the document.

The General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin corporate offices did not respond to requests for comment. Neither company has yet to file a response to the suit in court.

David Holdsworth, Cynthia McKenney’s attorney, also could not be reached.

Hill and other military bases have histories of environmental contamination and cleanup issues.

The base is the site of a decades-long groundwater cleanup effort funded by the EPA’s Superfund program.

Chromium-6, or hexavalent chromium, was found in all water systems in northern Utah that were tested in 2013-15 by the EPA, including six in Weber County, 11 in Davis County and two in Box Elder County.

The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District supplies water to numerous local systems and tests some of their samples as well. While all local systems test far below the EPA’s overall chromium standard, samples taken in systems surrounding Hill have shown slightly more chromium-6, the district said in 2016.

However, water managers said the threat of chromium-6 in the water was exaggerated.

In 2003, a Utah Department of Health investigation of a reported cluster of gallbladder, kidney and testicular cancer in Sunset and Clinton found no link to groundwater contaminants that had originated at the base.

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