Lawyers: Plant Leaked Toxic Chemicals For Years

Former Merck subsidiary failed to alert residents and collect data about groundwater, air and soil contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals, lawyers say.

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- Company officials failed to alert residents and collect data about groundwater, air and soil contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals from a Central California manufacturing plant owned by a former subsidiary of drug maker Merck & Co., lawyers for nearby residents told jurors Tuesday in closing arguments of a lawsuit.

Attorney Mick Marderosian, who represents 2,000 plaintiffs, said the defendants -- Merck & Co., Amsted Industries Inc., Meadowbrook Water Co. and Baltimore Aircoil Co. Inc. -- didn't alert a Merced housing community directly across the street from the plant about contamination from hexavalent chromium, the chemical made famous in the film "Erin Brockovich."

The now-shuttered Baltimore Aircoil plant, which manufactured cooling towers, used the chemicals to pressure-treat wood from 1969 to 1991. Merck, which owned Baltimore Aircoil until it sold it in 1985 to Amsted, is leading the remediation effort. The plant was shut down in 1994.

"There was massive release of chemicals. They migrated, entered the air and water in areas where people would have been exposed," Marderosian told jurors in U.S. District Court in Fresno. "People were subject to contamination without their knowledge."

The first phase of the trial focused on whether contamination did leak from the plant. If jurors find that to be true, the second phase would address whether residents were harmed by the chemical exposure.

Merck officials acknowledged that hexavalent chromium contamination occurred but denied that any of it left the confines of the plant at levels that could have harmed the health of residents.

"Did contamination migrate to a location where it could impact residents? The answer is no," Merck attorney John Barg said.

Barg said Merck and the other defendants made significant efforts to reach residents by knocking on doors and searching for domestic water wells. Marderosian countered that no evidence existed of any public notice until 2007.

Plaintiff Scott Davis, a Beachwood resident whose wife had a miscarriage and died of breast cancer at 36, previously said neither he nor any of his neighbors were ever notified of any contamination.

Davis said outside court last week that he didn't find out about the situation until he heard about the lawsuit. Davis, who lived near the plant for more than 15 years until moving in 2000, said dozens of neighbors developed ailments ranging from brain tumors to cancers to leukemia.

"If we had just known something, I could have gotten my wife out of the area," he said. "I could have gotten bottled water. I could have done something, anything."

State regulators testified during the trial that they see no current evidence of contamination outside the plant site or evidence of contaminated drinking water.

Marderosian said a contamination plume in the groundwater polluted the primary well supplying domestic water to Merced's Beachwood subdivision, located about 1,600 feet from the site.

Because plant records no longer exist, it's not known how much hexavalent chromium could have leaked into the environment.

Marderosian told jurors the plant continued pressure-treating wood with dangerous chemicals even when officials became aware of contamination.

Merck first found hexavalent chromium in 1984 and was issued a violation in 1987. But according to documents, the company did not start remediation until 1991, when a Merck consultant excavated contaminated soil from the pond and disposed of it at a landfill in Kettleman City.

Hexavalent chromium was also released off-site through storm water discharges into an adjacent irrigation canal, where residents fished and swam, Marderosian said.

A year later, court documents show, Merck became aware that the contamination plume in the groundwater had migrated off the plant site. A groundwater sample taken at a mini-market about 300 feet from the site showed levels of hexavalent chromium at eight times the drinking water standard, the documents state.

In response, a Merck consultant installed a pump-and-treat groundwater system in 1994 to control migration of contaminants and to remove hexavalent chromium and arsenic from groundwater. Consultants also excavated the soil from the area, covered it with an asphalt cap and installed a network of groundwater monitoring wells.

Marderosian told jurors that evidence showed chemicals leaked directly into the ground at the plant site, latched onto dust particles and were carried by the wind into the subdivision. Merck lawyers argued no air contamination had occurred but said the company never tested the air for contamination.

Remediation was not sufficient, Marderosian argued, noting that monitoring wells were too shallow and there weren't enough of them. The companies also failed to do a historical investigation into chemicals released for over 20 years when the plant was in operation and little or no monitoring data was collected, Marderosian said.

In 2006, court documents show, Merck's own remediator concluded the company did not aggressively manage the site.

Since then, Barg said, Merck has continued the clean-up.

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