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I-TEAM: Burke County deputies in danger due to lead contamination?

Published: May. 27, 2021 at 7:30 PM EDT|Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 7:33 PM EDT
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WAYNESBORO, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The I-Team investigates high levels of lead found inside the Burke County Sheriff’s Office. One former deputy says it poisoned him on the job.

How concerned are you about your former colleagues over there?

“Very concerned,” said Sgt. Jay Hollingsworth.

So concerned the deputy’s attorney just filed an injunction in Burke County Court. They’re asking a judge to shut down what the suit calls “Contaminated areas of the sheriff’s office.” They also want all personnel notified and tested for lead poisoning.

The source? The indoor firing range inside the sheriff’s office. The injunction also wants back pay and damages for the former deputy under the Georgia Whistleblower Act.

This comes after I-Team’s Liz Owens spent weeks asking questions and investigating.

Burke County Sheriff Alfonzo Williams and Burke County Administrator Merv Waldrop are named in this whistleblower complaint. The lawsuit alleges the sheriff not only knew about the potential risk of lead poisoning but also retaliated against the deputy who spoke up by firing him.

A deputy in uniform with a full head of hair.

When did you realize something wasn’t right?

“I say it was February 2019,” said Sgt. Jay Hollingsworth. “I went to go get my haircut and the girl who has been cutting my hair for 20 years said you need to go to the doctor something is wrong.”

Jay Hollingsworth looks nothing like the deputy that once served citizens in Burke County.

“It was a pain where it felt like someone was taking a syringe of hot lava and pumping into each one of those joints at the same time,” he said.

More than his body has aged since first getting sick.

“It’s horrifying. I can tell you his short-term memory and even some of his long-term memory is very very bad,” said Traci, Sgt. Hollingsworth’s wife.

Test results showed high levels of lead in his blood in June of 2019. Jay’s lead levels measured nearly twice the amount doctors define as abnormal and elevated.

“The thing that hit my mind is I got shot I had a bullet lodged vertebra,” he said.

While on duty in 2013 a stray bullet struck Sgt Hollingsworth. He continued to work at the Burke County Sheriff’s Office as a firearms instructor at the Burke County Firing Range for the next six years until doctors diagnosed him with lead poisoning.

“He told us how dangerous it would be and we would need to plan ahead and maybe get family members and friends to give blood. When a doctor tells you to plan ahead it’s very stressful very stressful,” he said.

Our camera was there in the summer of 2019 when the sheriff’s office and community came out to donate blood to the sick deputy the month before his surgery. Initially, it appeared surgery worked. Jay’s medical records read “Source of lead exposure, blood has been taken out and patient doesn’t have significant occupational exposure.”

“We go in December for a follow up my lead results were as high as they were before the surgery,” he said.

Three months after surgery his lead level spiked to 9.1.

“The bullet isn’t there anymore how can I still be exposed to lead?” he said. “So what did you do. The doctors said it was coming from an outside source and I needed to find out where so the first area of concern was my house.”

That’s when Jay’s wife Traci began pulling from her training and experience at work to help her husband.

“I have a master’s degree in occupational safety and health. I’ve worked at Vogtle on units 3 and 4 actually testing for lead,” said Traci.

But their home and even their young son tested negative.

“The only thing I could remember doing is going to a blood drive at the sheriffs office that they were having for me,” he said.

The same day as the blood drive Hollingsworth did his firearms qualifications. He did his qualifications at the Burke County Sheriff’s Office home to not just sheriff’s daily operations but also home to an indoor firing range.

Research shows lead poisoning is usually caused by months or years of exposure to small amounts of lead. It can also happen very quickly with exposure to a large amount of lead.

“Doctors said a firing range is a place where lead would be present and it needed to be checked,” he said.

The I-Team found warnings of lead exposure at indoor gun ranges by the Georgia Department of Health. OSHA also warns of lead risks involving employees of indoor firing ranges.

“Firing lead bullets produces gun smoke that contains lead dust and fumes. Lead dusts on hands, clothes or surfaces can contaminate food and lead to ingestion.”

Because of those dangers, specialized ventilation systems are recommended. Aware of the risks Traci asked a colleague of her husband to test the sheriff’s office for lead using at home kit. Red means positive.

“He did go and get tested and he did he had lead poisoning as well,” said Traci.

The results for his colleague detected lead but his body appeared to be handling the exposure and the levels were within range. The Hollingworth’s notified the county and requested professional lead testing. The sheriff brought in a company to test the facility in June but we found they never tested for lead.

This report from Alternative Construction and Environmental Solutions or ACES found problems with the indoor firing range ventilation system in June of 2020. The exhaust fan not properly working. There was no high efficiency particulate air filtration system to meet EPA guidelines. A follow-up inspection found the sheriff added the system and replaced the exhaust fan but still ACES “Recommended that the ventilation system be re-evaluated on an annual basis to ensure it remains operating properly.”

How long were you in law enforcement?

“Right at 25 years,” said Sgt Hollingsworth.

He kept pushing for lead testing even after receiving this letter, effective October 31, 2020.

Letter terminating the employment of James Hollingsworth.
Letter terminating the employment of James Hollingsworth.(WRDW)

You were let go?

“Yes,” he said.

Why?

“The letter I got said I was let go because a medical doctor said I couldn’t perform the duties I don’t know which medical doctor cause I’ve asked all of mine,” he said.

It took hiring a lawyer to finally get the test done this April. The results confirm what Jay was telling the sheriff’s office a year earlier. Lead was found in every single sample. The highest levels outside of the door leading into the indoor range and physically on another Burke County deputy.

“Results from personnel air sample show current work practices and engineering controls are not adequately controlling personnel potential exposures to lead.”

The I-Team requested an interview with Sheriff Alfonzo Williams. We called. We texted. And we emailed asking for a sit down interview. He responded by sending us this statement:

“Our personnel and others having training in our facility are not continuously and repeatedly exposed to lead. Experts in the field of air quality and cleanup have consulted with us. They continue to ensure repeated and over exposure to lead is nonexistent. Recent tests of our facilities show lead is contained and not a factor to persons in the building. Out of an abundance of caution, we have discontinued the use of the firing range to conduct firearm training.”

Why are you telling your story?

“Because I don’t want anybody else to go through this,” said Sgt Hollingsworth.

How concerned are you about your former colleagues over there?

“Very concerned,” he said.

He’s worried about other people too.

“The range is cleaned up by trustees,” he said.

Trustees?

“Inmates,” he said.

Each month the sheriff holds a citizens training academy inside the firing range.

“I think I was let go for pushing so hard to get the lead testing done in the building and I did it solely because I don’t want anybody else to go through with what I’ve gone through. This lead has been a living nightmare for over two years now and I wont get it out of my blood for at least another two years,” he said.

Studies show lead can stay in the body for up to a decade.

“I fight through the day I try to do things with my 7-year-old,” he said.

Hollingsworth is taking the road to recovery one step at a time. The first step, warning others is now behind him.

The lawsuit also claims the sheriff has yet to have informed deputies, inmates, and the public of the lead results. Which ACES notified the sheriff in their report.

Hollingsworth’s wife works with OSHA - is she taking any steps to notify them?

A lawsuit is about the only recourse. In Georgia, OSHA regulations do not apply to state and local governments. Thus, OSHA has no jurisdiction in this case.

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