FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A federal jury on Thursday found that a former subsidiary of the drug maker Merck & Co. contaminated the air and water in a central California subdivision, potentially exposing thousands to a cancer-causing chemical.
In a verdict in U.S. District Court in Fresno, the jury decided that hazardous levels of hexavalent chromium leaking from a manufacturing plant spread into the air where residents of Merced's Beachwood subdivision could have been exposed to them for 25 years.
Jurors also found that residents could have been exposed to the chemical — which was made famous in the film "Erin Brockovich" — through water in an irrigation canal, where they swam and fished, and through floodwaters, which flooded the subdivision in 2006 and picked up contaminated soil from the plant.
The jury, which heard more than two months of testimony and deliberated for two days, found that the neighborhood's public water supply was not contaminated by hexavalent chromium from the now-shuttered plant.
The Baltimore Aircoil plant, which manufactured cooling towers, used the chemical 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 at the plant. The plant was closed in 1994.
Baltimore Aircoil Co., Amsted Industries Inc. and Meadowbrook Water Co., which operated the subdivision's water well, are also defendants in the case.
Merck officials acknowledged during the trial 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. Merck first found hexavalent chromium at the plant site in 1984 and was issued a violation in 1987. But according to documents, the company did not start remediation until 1991.
"The air is really the most significant pathway when it comes to hexavalent chromium contamination, because the inhalation of the chemical is so dangerous," said attorney Mick Marderosian, who represents 2,000 plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "It's a 1,000 times more potent than ingestion through drinking water. And it impacts many more people."
Marderosian said the verdict sends a message about corporate responsibility.
"Companies should not conduct themselves like this," Marderosian said. "When they impact the environment, they should do the right thing. In this case they didn't and the jury picked up on that."
In a statement, Merck officials said they were pleased the jury found no contamination present in the drinking water, but added that the company would appeal the other parts of the verdict.
"We strongly disagree with the jury's findings regarding air or flood water contamination, which are contrary to actual testing data collected at or near the former BAC-Pritchard facility," said Stephen Lewis of Barg Coffin Lewis and Trapp, LLP, outside counsel for Merck.
A new jury will now be called to determine which of the 2,000 individual plaintiffs were actually harmed by the chemical exposure and to determine punitive damages.