Jury Finds California Plant Polluted Air and Canal With Toxic Chemical

Residents of a Central California subdivision have won a partial victory in a major toxic waste lawsuit. A federal jury found that a former subsidiary of the drug maker Merck & Co. polluted air and a canal in the plaintiffs’ neighborhood with the carcinogen hexavalent chromium.

The chemical, also known as chromium 6, gained notoriety as the contaminant in the water supply of another California community, Hinkley, whose story was portrayed in the film “Erin Brockovich.”

The Merck subsidiary, Baltimore Aircoil, operated a plant in Merced that used industrial chemicals to pressure-treat wood for the frames of cooling towers. More than 2,000 residents of the nearby Beachwood subdivision alleged that they may have been exposed to hexavalent chromium leaking from the plant for 25 years.

In a verdict reached late Thursday after a two-month trial, a jury in Fresno found that the chemical migrated into the air and into an irrigation canal where residents swam and fished. The air in California’s Central Valley “is not the best, but you don’t make it worse by adding a toxic chemical like this,” Mick Marderosian, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the The Fresno Bee.

Merck also claimed victory because the jury found hexavelent chromium from the plant did not contaminate groundwater. But Marderosian told the Associated Press that air “is really the most significant pathway when it comes to hexavalent chromium contamination, because the inhalation of the chemical is so dangerous. It’s 1,000 times more potent than ingestion through drinking water.”

The contamination at the Baltimore Aircoil plant was discovered in 1984, some 15 years after it began pressure-treating wood. Merck sold the plant in 1985 to Amsted Industries of Chicago and it was shut down in 1993.

Merck officials denied during the trial that any of the contamination could have harmed the health of residents. A new jury will be called to determine which of the 2,000-plus individual plaintiffs may have been harmed by the chemical exposure and what damages they should be awarded.

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