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Originally published Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Web video of workers starts Dept. of Labor and Industries probe

A YouTube video is playing a key role in state and federal cases against the concrete contractor of a $1 billion upscale urban village that's going up along Tacoma's Commencement Bay.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A YouTube video is playing a key role in state and federal cases against the concrete contractor of a $1 billion upscale urban village going up along Tacoma's Commencement Bay.

On the video, three Spanish-speaking workers — their faces concealed — tell of being given ID badges that belonged to other Latino workers who had been trained on how to protect themselves while working in potentially contaminated soils of the sprawling Point Ruston construction site.

The three on the video say they had not received the training but were told by their supervisors at Rain City Contractors to use the badges anyway.

State and federal labor officials say it is the first time an Internet video has triggered and played such a key role in local investigations into work-site complaints.

Rain City, the project's Lakewood-area concrete contractor, has been fined $35,000 by the state for failing to notify workers of the potential exposure to arsenic. The company is also scheduled to answer allegations by a federal labor board that it retaliated against the workers in the video by firing at least one of them.

Perhaps the boldest waterfront development of its kind in this region, Point Ruston is a mixed-use neighborhood of housing, shops and offices — including a four-star hotel — planned for 97 acres of the former Asarco smelter property, a Superfund site. The new neighborhood will be within walking distance of Point Defiance Park.

After eight decades of smelting high-arsenic copper ore at the site, Asarco shuttered its operation in the mid-1980s and paid more than $100 million to clean up widespread contamination.

Whatever additional cleanup is needed is being handled by the project's developer, though the Environmental Protection Agency continues to supervise the site to ensure it is safe.

The nine-minute YouTube video was made by the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, which has attempted to unionize Rain City's workers.

Mike Cohen, owner of MC Construction Consultants, the project's developer, returned calls that had been placed to Rain City. He said the carpenters union, in a meeting years ago, promised him that Rain City "would be spanked."

"We put this in the dirty-tricks category," he said of the video. "It boils down to the carpenters union having targeted Rain City and trying to unionize them."

Jimmy Haun, a union representative, said the union's campaign is not about organizing Rain City's workers. "We are not asking Rain City to enter into bargaining with us," he said. "We are asking Mr. Cohen to hire contractors that pay a living wage, a family wage, and support worker safety."

State investigation

The YouTube video triggered months of investigation by the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) into Rain City's work-site practices.

At least one of the men on the video said he felt burning in this throat the first day he entered the site. Studies have linked prolonged exposure to arsenic with cancer, diabetes, liver disease and digestive-system problems.

While L&I said its investigation found no symptoms among workers consistent with the potential hazards at the site, it fined Rain City $35,000 for not giving the workers safety training or informing them about potential exposure to contaminants.

And although the government doesn't require medical surveillance of workers at the site, Rain City had some of them tested anyway but was fined $1,200 by L&I for not providing test results in a timely manner to the workers who asked for them.

Spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said the agency's investigation was launched after the carpenters union submitted allegations that were illustrated in the video.

"What was presented to us in this video is what we went there to investigate," she said. "Our investigation found what the workers claimed in the video."

She called the video a "novel approach," adding, "I don't know of any other instances where that has been done."

The carpenters union also made allegations against Rain City with the National Labor Relations Board, saying the contractor had demoted and later fired at least one of the workers who appeared in the video.

It also accused the company of interrogating and threatening workers who were involved in union activities on the job site.

The labor board found merit to the union's charges and set a hearing for March 23.

Richard Ahearn, the labor board's regional director, said, "This is the first such case where activity that has given rise to discrimination arose from an Internet video."

Urban village

Point Ruston straddles the city of Tacoma and the town of Ruston, and bills itself as one of the last waterfront properties of its size and beauty in the region.

When completed around 2018, the development is expected to feature nearly 1,000 waterfront condominiums and townhouses, 36 single-family homes and 120,000 square feet of retail space, a four-star waterfront hotel and office and commercial space.

The first phase of condominiums was completed in the fall, and the single-family home sites opened last week.

On the video, the workers said they used their own tools and that their employer did not give them masks to prevent breathing in dust or instructions written in Spanish about how to protect themselves.

"We are Latinos," one said. "All the Rain City workers are Latinos. I've never seen any Americans."

Their immigration status is unknown.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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