WASHINGTON — Until recently, Lockheed Martin employees manufacturing the C-130J may have been exposed to harmful chemicals, and the Defense Department may have ignored worker concerns, a U.S. senator said Thursday.
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who leads the Senate Finance Committee, is calling for an investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general due to the worker claims, which were made by multiple whistleblowers, Grassley said in a statement.
“Any and every contract with the American government needs to live up to the standards set out in law,” he said. “It appears the deficient oversight of this contract left American workers in the lurch while the taxpayer money kept flowing. Whatever the reason, we ought to know why the department failed to provide oversight and recommend corrective action in a timely manner.”
The C-130J Super Hercules is the newest model of the C-130, a four-engine turboprop transport aircraft that has been in service since the 1950s. It is built in Marietta, Ga.
In a Jan. 22 letter to Glenn Fine, the department’s principal inspector general, Grassley wrote that, over multiple years, Lockheed employees habitually used a chemical called PR-148 in the making of a C-130J fuel tank in a manner inconsistent with the manufacturer’s directions —specifically, using the product in aerosol form. (PPG Aerospace, which manufactures the chemical, states on its website that PR-148 should be applied with a brush or gauze.)
The whistleblowers claimed that using PR-148 in aerosol form created a “large blue cloud” of particles that was equivalent to being exposed to and inhaling “industrial strength airplane glue,” according to Grassley’s letter.
Employees brought health concerns and, later, health issues they believed to be caused by the chemical to Lockheed, but were ignored, he wrote. The letter does not detail the health concerns or symptoms of the employees. It also does not state exactly when the use of the chemical in aerosol form occurred.
In a statement released Friday, Lockheed Martin said the company places paramount importance in the health and safety of its employees.
“In regard to the application of a sealant used in the C-130J tank production process, we conducted both internal and external investigations and it was determined that employees were operating within occupational safety standards for production processes including this sealant application process. A team from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration validated these findings,” the statement reads.
After several years, the Defense Department eventually began investigating the workers’ claims, only to suspend the investigation after Lockheed stated it would no longer use that chemical in aerosol form, Grassley said.
Grassley argued that the contracting officer representative on site potentially had become too friendly with Lockheed officials — failing at the core responsibility of holding the company accountable to labor and safety laws.
“This raises concerns regarding government contractor oversight and the objectivity, or at least competence, of those tasked with this oversight role,” he said. “Despite the obvious safety hazard, DOD’s COR presumably failed to ask elementary questions regarding possible health concerns, or review basic documents involved with the proper use and handling of hazardous chemicals.”
Grassley asked for the inspector general to investigate the effectiveness of department oversight of the C-130J contract, and specifically answer why the initial investigation was cut short after Lockheed amended its use of PR-148. He also requested the IG provide recommendations of reforms in an unclassified report.
Although the C-130 is beloved by military pilots due to its reputation as a dependable workhorse of an aircraft, its many years of service have not been without difficulties and mishaps.
In 2019, the Air Force temporarily removed a quarter of its H and J models from service to investigate potential cracks in the lower center wing joint after cracking was found in one plane. In 2018, a separate investigation found that systemic maintenance failures at an Air Force depot led to a crash of a KC-130T that killed 16 service members.
Updated 1/24/20 at 4:20 p.m. EST to add statement from Lockheed Martin.