Wednesday, May 04, 2016

New Jersey's Chromium Problems & Honeywell's Sweet Deal?

Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich
One of the most interesting and emotionally compelling films about corporate environmental crimes to come out of Hollywood since Silkwood was released in 1983 was director Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film Erin Brockovich starring Julia Roberts, Albert Finney and Aron Eckhart.

Roberts won a Best Actress Oscar for her role, one of the best performances of her career; and both Finney and Eckhart delivered performances worthy of Best Supporting Actor nods.

The film is based on the true story of a sassy and determined single mother who bullies her lawyer into hiring her as an assistant at his law firm, where she overcomes skeptical co-workers and proves her worth by playing a key role in the investigation of Pacific Gas & Electric Company after the west coast power behemoth began making offers to buy up the houses of Hinkley, California homeowners living on land that PG&E contaminated with the highly toxic waste product hexavalent chromium  after Chromium 6 leaked into the groundwater.

Hexavalent chromium contamination is a dangerous byproduct of the industrial use of chromium, a rust inhibitor, to manufacture a variety of products including stainless steel, paint and heating & cooling systems.

It's highly toxic and causes birth defects and a variety of cancers (including cancer of the lungs); in fact federal studies show that people exposed to chromium are 17% more likely to develop cancer.

It isn't just a west coast problem by the way.

In a story that's way off the radar of mainstream media, here in New Jersey a judge recently signed off on a controversial $10 million settlement agreement with Honeywell to pay residents of Jersey City about $1,850 apiece as compensation for being exposed to chromium.

PPG Industries Garfield Avenue site in Jersey City
The settlement is the result of a class action suit that was filed back in 2010 against Honeywell and PPG Industries by residents of Jersey City.

Attorneys for the residents sought compensation for residents to cover costs related to long-term medical testing for cancer resulting from exposure to hexavalent chromium.

And compensation for the plummeting values of homes located in the contaminated areas as well.

The lawsuit stemmed from multiple residential areas contaminated by two Jersey City sites.

According to a 2010 article by Melissa Hayes, PPG Industries processed chromium at a site on Garfield Avenue (pictured above) from 1954 until 1963 - PPG has since pledged to remove about 700,000 tons of contaminated soil and material from the site.

The other site associated with the settlement is a highly-contaminated 32-acre site where tons of chromium slag was dumped for years.

Mutual Chemical Company of America chromium plant
The slag was a byproduct of one of the largest chromium production plants in the world (pictured left) which was located right across route 440.

The Jersey City plant produced 40% of the chromium used by the U.S. military during World War II.

But every pound of chromium produced two pounds of slag waste; and the math proved deadly.

All that waste was moved across the street from the chromium production plant pictured above and dumped on the site known as the Roosevelt Drive-in, it was operated by the former Mutual Chemical Company of America; the stock of MCCA was purchased by Allied Chemical, the corporate entity now known as Honeywell.

So in all fairness to Honeywell, they are legally responsible for the toxic waste site because of the Superfund laws passed in 1980, even though they never actually produced or processed any chromium there.

According to a 2006 New York Times article by Anthony DePalma, the Honeywell site is one of the most toxic sites in the nation.

Overhead view of the Honeywell site in Jersey City
Believe it or not, after the plant located across route 440 that processed chromium for years ceased production (a Home Depot is now located on the site), a drive-in theater and a department store were both built on the site where all the slag used to be dumped.

For years that slag was actually used as fill material for areas all over Jersey City including homes and schools.

As you can plainly see from the overhead aerial photograph of of the Honeywell site seen above, it was located right next to the Hackensack River.

Remarkably, the skyrocketing rents in New York City which have pushed the rents in Jersey City into the stratosphere as well have even made the Honeywell site a highly-coveted plot of land for future development, including a possible location for a park once the tons of contaminated soil and groundwater are removed.

As you can see from the photograph directly above, this vast toxic waste site, the size of 32 football fields, is literally tucked in between two different Jersey City waterfront properties zoned for commercial - industrial use; but it's alarmingly close to the townhouse development seen on the left.

While Honeywell has spent more than 30 years cleaning up the Jersey City site, some environmental groups, including the NJ chapter of the Sierra Club, feel that the $10 million settlement which works out to about $1,850 per claimant, falls well short of proper compensation for the environmental impact of residents who's homes are built near, or on top of the toxic slag used as land fill in various parts of Jersey City.

Can that amount begin to compensate cancer victims who live in the affected areas?

No small amount of criticism has fallen on the administration of Governor Chris Christie, who famously watered down a $8.9 billion judgement against Exxon-Mobil to clean up water contamination from refineries in Bayonne and Linden that were once owned by Exxon, by accepting a $225 million settlement.

But the Chromium issue was around long before Christie was elected and it will be around long after he leaves office for a cushy private sector job.

The $10 million settlement paid by Honeywell in Jersey City is dwarfed by the then-record $333 million settlement paid to the residents of Hinkley, California.

Can any amount compensate people impacted by chromium exposure through no fault of their own?

As an article in the LA Times from last April reported, the huge settlement has done little to alleviate fears of the toxic pollution in a small California community that's now a ghost of its former self.

Given Jersey City's proximity to New York City, a mass exodus is not going to happen.

But people still have to live with the consequences.

That's a human cost that can't be calculated in terms of money.

If you've never seen the film Erin Brockovich, I'd highly recommend you give it a watch if you want to get a sense of the staggering human toll of chromium exposure on residential communities that have the misfortune to have been located near industrial areas where large amounts of chromium was produced or used without adequate safety measures or a regard for the environmental impact.

If you've got Netflix you can stream it while it's available. Even if you've seen it already, it's worth another watch.

Maybe they need to do a movie about Jersey City, or any of the other communities around the U.S. and the world where human lives have been impacted by chromium.

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