I-TEAM INVESTIGATION: Poisoned Or Prison?

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Thursday, April 18, 2019
News 12 at 6 o'clock/NBC at 7

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Believe your health is deteriorating or go back to prison. It's a choice some inmates at Augusta Transitional Center may feel forced to make.

U.S. Battery in Augusta pays inmates to work there through Georgia's work release program at Augusta Transitional Center. OSHA released an investigation into safety violations last month.

There was concern and questions for six long months until finally, this arrives in the mail.

"The headaches, the vomiting, nausea. I didn't know if my kids had been exposed. It's like a puzzle coming together," said Lakecia Demmons.

Lakecia Demmons was desperate for answers when News 12 first sat down with her last October.

"Do you know how my husband was exposed to lead? The reason I am asking is because now me and my kids have to be tested," said Demmons.

Test results show her husband's blood lead was higher than OSHA's limit for employees handling lead.

Nobody believed her when you said 60.

"Nobody, not even OSHA," said Demmons.

OSHA did investigate. In a 22-page letter, the agency detected lead on the time clock. OSHA writes U.S. Battery did not monitor lead quarterly. It also states the company did not have a training program instituted for each worker who is exposed to inorganic arsenic.

And then there's this, he's not the only one.

"No he is not," said Demmons.

OSHA found not one, not two, but three employees had tested positive for high levels of lead but U.S. Battery did not report it. OSHA writes "employees with blood lead of 60 were medically removed.

"All three inmates there were tested with high lead levels were all sent back to prison," said Demmons.

U.S. Battery hires inmates from Augusta Transitional Center. OSHA's investigation revealed all three employees testing positive for lead were in the work release program.

"Even though my husband was physically sick he knew if he told anyone that he would get sent back," said Demmons.

Demmons says it took months before her husband finally agreed to go to a doctor because he feared to lose his freedom of the work release program, which meant going back to prison.

On October 15, Demmons’ doctor sent U.S. Battery a letter, the same day the company medically removed him from his position.

U.S Battery removed the other inmates who tested positive for lead too. A company spokesperson told News 12 they were following doctor's orders. In a letter, Demmons’ doctor writes "mandatory removal is required," and "he will need further evaluation."

OSHA's report states "U.S. Battery had no control over the inmates once they returned to jail. OSHA says it does not have jurisdiction over Augusta Transitional Center.

Since being removed from the work release program, Demmons only sees his wife and children during weekend visits to prison.

"This has been hard not only for me but for my kids," said Demmons.

Court documents say the lead monitoring that Demmons should be receiving stopped when he left the transitional center and was sent back to prison.

OSHA originally fined U.S. Battery $115,000 but reduced the fine to $75,000. A spokesperson with U.S. Battery told News 12 they're working with OSHA to comply with all of the findings.

He also told News 12 this is the first time in nearly 30 years an employee has tested that high for lead.