Families lament: Why did it take so long?

• Well-water pollution at Mattel plant went undetected for decades

Veronica Gallegos and Amanda Evans come from different worlds, but they have a lot of grief and frustration in common.

Gallegos, a 29-year-old Mexican immigrant, lost her husband, Rey, to acute lymphoblastic leukemia on June 18, 2000. He was 34.

Evans, a 32-year-old Los Angeles art director, is on the verge of losing her 61-year-old father, Gary, to liver cancer. He decided Monday to end all of his medical treatments. His doctors expect him to die within a week. His family took him to church Wednesday night for a rosary service.

Both women blame the hardships of their loved ones on bad water at the now-closed View-Master toy factory in Beaverton. In March 1998, the industrial solvent trichloroethylene Ñ a contaminant associated with leukemia, liver cancer, kidney cancer and other serious diseases Ñ was detected in the toy factory's well water at more than 300 times the federal government's allowable level. The discovery set off an environmental health scare that persists today, as more people blame the polluted water for their health problems.

Gary Evans worked at the plant for 23 years, Rey Gallegos for 10.

Since her husband's death, Veronica Gallegos has taken refuge in religion to keep calm. But from time to time her anger slips out. 'Those big companies knew they had a problem, and they kept serving that water,' Gallegos said. 'They ruined people's lives.'

Amanda Evans has similar suspicions about her father's cancer. She has contacted Erin Brockovich's California law firm about a potential lawsuit and an executive from HBO about a possible documentary.

'I want as many people as possible to know about this,' Evans said. 'I don't think the people who were responsible should be allowed to say that the water was fine and there's no connection between all these illnesses and that water. It's outrageous.'

The big question Gallegos and Evans have is the same one that has exasperated many former View-Master employees and their families. How could a major drinking-water system on industrial land operate for 40 years without ever being tested for chemical contamination?

'A family atmosphere'

Mattel Inc., the toy plant's fifth and final owner, has avoided large penalties by defeating dozens of would-be lawsuits and workers' compensation claims. According to Mattel officials, who closed the plant in 1998 and moved its operations to Mexico, the well water was never tested for volatile organic compounds such as TCE Ñ though such tests have been required by law since 1990.

Mattel Portland's General Manager Dan Nottage, one of a handful of Mattel employees left in Oregon, said nobody at the factory had any idea that the wells were bad. Nottage, who also worked for previous plant owners Tyco Toys Inc. and View-Master International, said he drank the water for 23 years, as did his family and friends.

'During the period that the water was polluted, my son worked out there,' he said. 'The previous manager's two daughters worked there. It really was a family atmosphere, and I don't think anyone would subject themselves or their families to (TCE). I just can't imagine that being a possibility.'

Any evidence of prior knowledge would carry large implications for Mattel. Tobacco company executives can testify to the vast difference between unknowing negligence and willful damage accompanied by a cover-up.

The public record on the View-Master plant is huge. The state Department of Environmental Quality alone has nine file drawers full of reports, correspondence and scientific tests. But the most relevant files of all Ñ the toy plant's water-testing documents Ñ are conspicuously absent.

Dave Leland, manager of the Oregon Health Division's drinking water program, said Mattel 'showed us nothing. There was basically no historical data. We called laboratories to look for back records, and they couldn't find any.'

A recent request by the Tribune for all of the toy plant's water-testing records turned up three documents from 1950 and one from 1988.

In 1990, testing drinking water for volatile organic compounds became both commonplace and required by law. Mattel managers say they were not aware of the law and missed its passage.

The chemist who performed the 1988 water test, Howard Holmes of Northwest Testing Laboratories Inc., today works for North Creek Analytical Inc., in an office built on property that once belonged to the toy factory.

Holmes said he did not recall if the plant remained a water-testing client of his after he started working next door to the plant. He said his lab keeps testing records for seven years, but anyone wanting to inspect the files would need a court order.

Nottage said the bulk of the plant's water records were shredded before the pollution was detected as part of an effort to eliminate the huge volume of files Mattel inherited at the factory when it bought out Tyco in 1997.

But two longtime employees with knowledge of the plant's water-testing procedures question this account. Forrest Dornik, plant engineer, and Ray Argyle, head of safety, both said the water files were kept in the maintenance building, a separate location from where the bulk of the former plant's files were stored.

Dornik, who left the plant after 17 years in 1992, said he found it strange that only four documents would remain from the water file. 'All of those other files should have been in there, too,' he said.

Argyle, who worked at the plant for 45 years, was contacted at his winter home in Yuma, Ariz., where he lives without a telephone. He told a reporter for the Yuma Daily Sun that he specifically recalled a four-drawer file cabinet containing all the water-testing records.

However, Argyle declined to answer specific questions about water testing at the plant from 1990 to 1998. 'Talk to the lawyers,' he said. 'I told them everything.'

Mattel's attorneys served as the lead investigators into the water issue after the pollution was discovered. But not all of their findings are public information.

Another former Mattel employee believed to be familiar with the plant's water systems, Alan Eschright of Oregon City, declined to comment, saying: 'I'm not sure who would have been responsible (for testing the water in the '90s).'

Many clues, no follow-up

The public record shows that state officials and environmental contractors encountered a number of clues that the water was polluted. But apparently nobody dug deeply enough to find the pollution and report it until Mattel's landlord tested the well water in 1998.

State documents dating back to the 1960s warn about the health hazards of the large amounts of TCE used at the plant.

In 1969, TCE used in the plant's degreasing machine caught fire, releasing a plume of toxic vapors. State safety inspectors mandated a chemical-monitoring program of the TCE. But they never followed up in the '70s and '80s, when it was learned that TCE is a common groundwater contaminant.

A check of the plant's historical workers' compensation claims also shows dozens of unusual diseases, including lymph node tumors and liver ailments.

A claim filed in 1969 came from a 27-year-old male complaining of 'multiple diseases in the body system' specifically attributed to exposure to TCE. Another claim from 1993 shows a 27-year-old woman suffering from an 'abnormal find' in her liver.

Both claims were denied, as were all of the out-of-the-ordinary claims filed at the factory.

Meanwhile, 10 property transactions have occurred on the plant's original 52 acres since 1980. Several of the environmental assessments that accompanied these sales raised strong concerns about possible contamination.

A 1990 report specifically warned of the hazards of solvents such as TCE, which 'have been identified as being common contaminants of groundwater.'

But that investigation didn't include a test for chemical pollution in the groundwater. And the follow-up inspection didn't come until 1993, when it was rushed through by the prospective property buyer, Harsch Investment, the real-estate arm of Portland's Schnitzer family.

Pressed for time and working on a small budget, the environmental consultant failed to draw groundwater when he dug in a spot where extremely high levels of TCE were later discovered.

The consultant, Ross Simmons of Secor International Inc., denied repeated requests from the Tribune for an interview.

Interrupted lives

The way Veronica Gallegos sees it, nobody from the plant or the state is stepping up to take responsibility. But she tries not to dwell on the subject.

Gallegos says she often thinks of Rey, the refried beans he used to cook, how hard he worked to earn his high-school diploma, his lifelong dream of becoming a union electrician, the way he loved to carry their daughter, Janet, on his shoulders.

Her religious beliefs these days cling fiercely to the notion of resurrection.

'Right now he's sleeping,' she said. 'Once the resurrection comes I will be so happy to see him waking up from that deep sleep he's in.'

This week, Gary Evans' family gathered around him at his Hillsboro home to help him through his final moments and to determine how to proceed with his many unfinished projects.

In addition to three children, a wife, an incomplete novel and a never-made recording of a jam session with his musician friends, Evans will leave behind the original design for a new type of three-dimensional viewer. He was trying to get the product licensed when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Contact Ben Jacklet at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..