FRESNO, Calif. -- A company once owned by pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. exposed residents near its now-shuttered Merced plant to cancer-causing chemicals, then covered up the contamination for years and downplayed its severity, a lawyer said Thursday.
Fresno attorney Mick Marderosian made the allegations in opening statements in U.S. District Court in Fresno.
Marderosian is part of a legal team representing more than 2,000 residents of Merced's Beachwood subdivision, who claim the air they breathed and the water they drank were contaminated by the cancer-causing chemical hexavalent chromium -- which gained attention after the movie "Erin Brockovich."
The result, many of the residents say, has been a high number of deaths and sicknesses for those who were exposed.
In his own opening statement, an attorney representing Merck -- as well as Amsted Industries of Chicago and Baltimore Aircoil Co. -- acknowledged the plant site was contaminated by arsenic and hexavalent chromium. The plant used industrial chemicals to pressure-treat wood that was used to make cooling tower frames.
But attorney John Barg disputed that any contaminants escaped the confines of the plant. He said no hexavalent chromium -- also known as chromium 6 -- entered the groundwater, an adjacent canal or got into the air.
"No one has been exposed to contamination from this wood-treating site," he said.
The trial that began Thursday is just the first phase. It will determine if the residents were contaminated. If the federal jury agrees, a second jury will be convened to examine if the residents were harmed by exposure to the chemicals.
The entire matter -- which is being heard by U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger -- could take a year to resolve.
Merced County, the city of Merced, the Franklin County Water District and Merced Irrigation District settled before the trial.
The plant's history stretches back to the early 1960s, but it didn't start pressure-treating wood until around 1969.
In 1975, BAC Pritchard was created. It was owned by Baltimore Aircoil, then a Merck subsidiary. In 1985, Merck sold the company to Amsted.
The contamination was discovered in 1984, but the plant continued to pressure-treat wood until 1991. It was shut down in 1993.
Marderosian said the hexavalent chromium seeped into the groundwater, where it was picked up by a pump operated by Meadowbrook Water Co., which is also a defendant.
In addition, he said, the chemicals would drip onto dirt that in turn was kicked up into dust by forklifts at the site and carried by air to the subdivision.
Also, a stormwater pond on the site was drained after it was found to be contaminated. The water was sent into an irrigation canal that runs near the subdivision where residents swam and fished. Nobody was notified, Marderosian said.
The problem was exacerbated, he said, because state officials relied on the company to self-report on the extent of the contamination and clean-up efforts.
Barg dismissed the claims in his opening statement, and said he will have experts, as well as state officials, testify that contamination did not occur in wells, canals or in the air.
He said area wells -- including the one operated by Meadowbrook -- were tested and found to be clean, and a state report generated after an inquiry by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., found no contamination.
In addition, Barg said, the stormwater pond water wasn't contaminated and there is no data to support the air pollution charge.
He also said residents were notified and offers were made to test any well they might own. Only one took up the offer, and that well tested negative for contaminants.
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