In a stomach turning civil case against petroleum industry giants Chevron Phillips Chemical and Union Carbide, a jury in Smith County, Mississippi awarded a man named Thomas “Tony” Brown a hefty amount for the life altering illness he developed working with their products.
This story sounds typical until you hear about the astounding monetary damages awarded, the offensive and discriminatory defense argued by the two behemoths, and the positive social repercussions that the case brought forth.
Brown worked since he was sixteen for the oil drilling industry in oil fields of Mississippi as a mixer of drilling mud. The drilling mud that was produced by Union Carbide and distributed by CP Chemical consisted of nearly 100% asbestos and was known by both companies to cause cancer and lung disease when inhaled by humans.
Mississippi regulations require oil field companies to warn their employees about the dangers of working with their asbestos containing products. Both companies used the sickening defense that because Mr. Brown, as is the case with many young men entering the oil drilling field, was not able to read. His illiteracy, they claim, excluded him from the protection of the Mississippi warning regulations.
Fast forward to today and Mr. Brown has been suffering from asbestosis, the debilitating lung disease, and requires around the clock oxygen administration to allow him to breathe. Brown’s lawyers argued successfully that all workers are entitled to the protection the laws offer, regardless of their ability to read.
Mr. Brown’s lawyers were successful to the tune of “$322 million dollars for future medical expenses, pain and suffering, and punitive damages,” according to their press release. That award was the “single largest plaintiff’s asbestos verdict in United States history,” the press release continues.
The verdict awarded to Mr. Brown will not ever allow him to breathe normally, or ever be completely healthy again, but if there is a silver lining for him it is that this case sets a precedent for other plaintiffs who became or become sick from inadequate warning by their employers. Most importantly, the case demonstrates the state of Mississippi’s commitment to protect all of its citizens from companies who knowingly put their employees in grave danger, and shows that the state does not tolerate discrimination on the basis of literacy.
A couple from Adrian, Michigan will have a chance to argue their suit against Tecumseh Products Co. in front of a jury. Thomas and Robert Robarge almost didn’t get that chance, after a judge initially dismissed the case. A court of appeal reinstated the suit and now the Robarges’ and Tecumseh each have environmental consultants on their sides.
“It is a battle of the experts. Let’s see what the jury says,” said Judge Noe, who originally dismissed the case.
The case involves groundwater contamination that originally came from chemical solvents released at a now defunct manufacturing plant. According to Dennis Pelham of lenconnect.com, now “the contamination was migrating to more than 70 neighboring properties.”
The maker of compressors and condensing units feels strongly that it has caused no damage to the properties in question. Tecumseh does not believe that the company caused water contamination, or if it did, that damage was minimal. “There’s no evidence there’s been any damage to their property. Even if there is contamination of groundwater on their property, it is not a substantial and unreasonable interference,” said Jill Przybylski, an environmental attorney for Tecumseh.
The plaintiffs on the other hand, argue that their properties have indeed been negatively affected by the groundwater contamination. A Robarge attorney said, “Tecumseh Products claims there is no proof contamination has spread through groundwater onto neighboring property. But the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and environmental consultants all agree it has.”
Samples of soil in several neighborhoods will help determine how far the contamination has spread. If the samples come back showing elevated levels of solvents, air quality testing will be performed as well.
For now, the Robarges are happy to know that a jury will hear their case and possibly validate their concerns about the damage caused to their property value. Says Charles Gross, a Roberge attorney, “Convincing a jury that contaminated groundwater has no effect on the value and marketability of a home will be a challenge to Tecumseh.”
Three 55-gallon barrels are like the ghosts of Wildwood that keep rearing their ugly heads and reminding everyone that decades ago the site was used as an illicit dumping ground for dangerous chemicals. EPA has finally removed the recently found drums, which contained toxic elements including the waste byproducts of paint.
According to Stephen Deere of StlToday.com, “Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hauled them away, along with 1,500 cubic yards of soil, an amount roughly the equivalent to a swimming pool.”
The recent EPA move to remove the hazardous waste material-containing barrels has caused a heated debate between two camps: Those who feel that the agency has made sure the site is cleaned up to environmental compliance, and those who disagree, saying the drums should have been taken care of long ago and that the risks have been downplayed. To sum this up, Deere states, “To some, the recent cleanup proves that the agency has gone out of its way to alleviate concerns about the site; to others, it only shows the EPA can’t be trusted.”
Some question why the drums were left behind while the rest were transported away and discarded back in the beginning of the 1980s. Dan Topik, a neighbor to the Wildwood site, says, “They screwed up.”
But controversy lies in the fact that the EPA declares the land suitable for environmental safety and are removing the last three barrels because it is the right thing to do. In fact, Chris Whitley, speaking on behalf of the EPA, said, “The barrels pose no risk to nearby residents and showed no evidence of contaminating groundwater. The EPA could have easily left them.”
Opponents believe all toxic materials should have been removed in the “multimillion dollar cleanup” and go as far as linking the dioxin and other industrial waste with an increased level of childhood cancers in the area.
Bottom line is that the EPA has completely remediated the site and only now can the homeowners feel some reassurance that their properties are safe IF there truly is no residual contamination.
A group of residents in Midland County, Texas are waiting anxiously for someone to tell them exactly what is going on with their well water supply, and hoping that renowned environmental activist Erin Brockovich will swoop in and take up their case.
For years, area homeowners were noticing their well water turn from a pale yellow to a disgusting green. Although most people stopped drinking the water, no one officially informed them of any health risks in the water until a year ago when they were told that their well water was tainted with chromium six.
Some residents are noticing adverse health effects that very likely can be attributed to the contaminated water. "There are a lot of medical things. My arms here," Felicia Acosta, a homeowner said pointing to her left arm. "Rashes have come out, stomach problems, a lot of stuff that my doctor doesn't know where it's coming from."
Another local, Franklin Howard, said, “We’ve had people whose animals have died in the water.”
One thing that seems to evade the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is exactly where the contamination stems from. Many signs point to several nearby companies with one in particular being an oil field service company named Schlumberger. Erin Brockovich, who is likely to file a suit against the polluters, will have Schlumberger on her list. The company denies that their operations contributed to the chromium six invasion of the local well water.
What the people who rely on the wells really want, besides a high profile environmental attorney to go after the pollution culprit(s), is a safe water supply. Unless the TCEQ can successfully petition the Federal government to add the site to the national priority list, the budget for a remediation solution is null. The TCEQ has installed filters on some of the wells, but they are not highly effective and the extra electricity that they consume has added significant costs to the homeowners’ utility bills. Most residents would be happiest with a connection to a city water system.
The anxious Texans should have their answer by the end of July If Ms. Brockovich will be stepping in on Midland County’s behalf.
One decrepit burnt-out building in Albany, New York sits as more than just an eyesore. The environmental safety of the Washington Avenue area is in question as drums of potentially harmful substances remain in the water-soaked basement of a former dry cleaner.
According to Jordan-Carleo-Evangelist of TimesUnion.com, “Earlier this month, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy called on the state to test for the presence of toxic chemicals feared to be stewing in drums submerged in the rank, rust-colored water.
After the building burned down to just its smoke-stained shell in December 2000, only rubble and plywood remained at the site. The county now fears that squatters have been calling the dry cleaning building home, making the situation that much more dire. Dry cleaners were notorious for their use of hazardous solvents, including tetrachloroethylene, or perchloroethylene, or simply perc.
Perc is a dry cleaning solvent popular because it is non-flammable. The problem with the substance is that it is a possible cancer-causing agent to humans. As stated in Wikipedia, “Animal studies and a study of 99 twins by Dr. Samuel Goldman and researchers at the Parkinson's Institute in Sunnyvale, California determined there is a "lot of circumstantial evidence" that exposure to tetrachloroethene increases the risk of developing Parkinson's disease ninefold.”
Building inspections have been slow-going because the town is hesitant to take over the property. Knowing the liabilities that lie within, Albany officials are aware that the property could come with a sizable cleaning bill.
Neighbors of the building are optimistic that something will finally be done, not only for aesthetic reasons, but also because of the safety and health issues that come with it. “I hope that we are finally moving toward actions to mitigate and remediate the site to become a functional part of the neighborhood again,” said Pine Hills Neighborhood Association President Todd Hunsinger.
Environmental scientist Robert Bowcock, an associate of love ‘er or hate ‘er Erin Brockovich, has followed in her immense footsteps by exposing an alarming case of groundwater contamination in Wedron, Illinois. At the request of several concerned Wedron homeowners, Bowcock led a recent site assessment at a location containing a group of private wells. The results of the well samples were shocking. For a few people involved, the sky-high benzene levels posed potential answers to nagging questions: “Has exposure to the water from these contaminated wells caused cancer in my loved ones?”
Since other nearby properties tested in 2011 similarly contained high levels of the carcinogen benzene, an unsettling pattern has emerged. Those homeowners were told not to drink any water from the wells and the federal EPA has been providing bottled water to them ever since. Safe drinking water simply is not enough to settle the nerves of those affected. They shower in the putrid, gas-smelling water day in and day out; they use it to cook their food, use it to clean their homes, and use it to wash their clothes.
Bowcock defended the residents and validated their fears. “Showering in this type of pollution is just as dangerous as drinking the water. Exposure to the benzene has been linked to leukemia and other kinds of cancer.” He went on to call the Wedron discovery an “emergency situation” and has full intentions of pushing the EPA to work must faster than it has in coming up with a remediation plan.
The environmental scientist and a room full of about 60 people congregated to voice their concerns about the EPAs oversight and speed. According to Wedron citizen, Kelly Henry, “This problem began here years ago, and they (EPA investigators) still don’t know where the problem originated from. Many of us feel the EPA is dragging their heels.”
Before learning the extent of the benzene water contamination, the federal agency had suggested installing home filtration systems. As Bowcock told the group, “Regular home filtration systems and/or deeper wells won’t solve this expanding problem.”
Further causing a stir, the Brockovich protégé declared, “The contamination levels under this village are alarmingly high, and authorities should start remediation to remove it from the environment right away. These are some of the highest levels we’ve ever seen, and if you’re (private) well is not contaminated yet, it will be.”
In the coming weeks, Bowcock and his crew will begin more in depth testing including “forensic testing from a cross section of water samples collected from local wells,” he promised.
With most homeowners essentially stuck in their properties and at the mercy of the EPA, a renegade environmentalist like Bowcock must seem like the answer to their prayers. The reality is that he, along with the EPA, can’t let this benzene problem slip down the list of priorities. With numbers that high, the health of these Wedron dwellers is truly in jeopardy and no shipment of bottled water is going to protect them from a cancer-causing agent that has infiltrated their private water supplies. And perhaps most curious of all is where all the contamination is coming from in the first place.
As a precautionary measure, the Public Works Commission of Fayetteville, North Carolina will now regularly test the Cape Fear River, which provides the city’s drinking water, for industrial contaminants. Sitting next door to the P.O. Hoffer Water Treatment Facility is the former building of Texfi, a now defunct textile mill that was a heavy polluter, especially of TCE, a known carcinogen. Although no industrial pollutants have been found yet in the river, contamination was found in the mid 1990’s in area groundwater.
Fayetteville Public Works has taken previous steps to safeguard the city’s drinking water. The water is held securely in a large underground container with one-foot thick concrete walls. Millions of gallons of water are held in the container, which is known as a clear well. In addition to the concrete well, a hard clay wall was built as deep as ten feet down creating a barrier between the ground water contamination and the public water supply.
Until this decision was made, the PWC routinely tested for other industrial contaminents, but not the ones found in the water near Texfi. Lou Olivera, board Chairman of the PWC called the measure precautionary. “Just for another level of safety and protection. I’m not trying to tell you how to do your job, but I’m just saying leave nothing to chance.”
Another board member, Terri Union agreed and said, “I think we need to do everything we can to protect the water and reassure that [sic] our customers there is not an issue.”
The move to conduct regular testing of the Cape Fear River could not come at a better time. Studies of the Texfi water contamination have shown that the pollution has reached much deeper than once thought. It’s spreading faster than expected and now can be found as deep as thirty feet. The Fayetteville PWC should be applauded for their proactive approach to protecting its city’s drinking water, which is drawn directly from the Cape Fear River. This is an excellent example of positive environmental management.
For folks living in Kentucky, May 29, 2012 was a day to celebrate. Efforts to clean up contaminated properties and make them suitable for operations were boosted as the EPA announced that the agency has awarded a total of $1.9 million in funding for site assessments and remediation of sites facing environmental safety problems.
To give you a little background on Brownfields, SurfKY explains, “Brownfields are properties that are abandoned or underutilized due to real or perceived environmental contamination. They can include old factories, former gas stations, mine-scarred lands and abandoned and contaminated waste sites in the country.”
The Brownfield projects now being funded with the $1.9 million will help bring prosperity into their communities and beautify land that almost always sits as local eyesores.
One recipient of the EPA’s Brownfield funding is the Kentucky Brownfield Redevelopment Program, which will receive $850,000. The money will come in the form of a Revolving Loan Fund Grant. With this grant, Kentucky is able to save Brownfields on a continuous basis because the money will be used to set up a revolving fund. According to SurfKy.com, “The fund will provide low-interest loans and subgrants for cleanup activities on Brownfield sites in communities across Kentucky. When loans are repaid, the loan amount will be returned to the fund and loaned to other borrowers, providing an ongoing source of capital for redevelopment within the state.”
What a fantastic idea for environenmental sustainability. Instead of doling out enormous sums of money to individual projects, never to be paid back, Kentucky’s EPA has developed a way for a special fund to grow through the repaid loans and the interest on those loans and allow more and more areas sitting idle to become useful land again.
Herb Retitjean, a Brownfield coordinator describes the purpose of this innovative grant, “…to clean up blighted properties and put them back into productive use.” Not many people on any side of the political fence can argue with that notion.
China is the world’s fourth largest country, has about 1.3 billion citizens, and is one of the most industrious nations ever to have existed on this planet. But the rapid growth of its economic engine has far outpaced its efforts to curb pollution. Many reports claim the country enforces virtually no environmental regulations. A 2007 report by World Bank found that China is home to 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. With the exception of a few valiant environmental advocates, China’s water contamination, air pollution, and toxic waste ground pollution is largely ignored and denied by the government.
Increasing research (and common sense) has shown that the industrial giant is not a nation encapsulated in a protective vacuum, but instead, China’s air pollution is not only hurting the Chinese people, it is also traveling across the Pacific jet stream and causing air quality issues in America. Air quality testing in California has shown pollution from China has reached its skies and not only is polluting the state, but is even changing weather patterns.
“It’s no longer just their problem; it’s our problem,” said Kim Prather of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
The international arena is starting to take notice. According to CBS News this week, “A U.N. conference on climate change ended Sunday without a major deal to cut emissions. No country emits more carbon dioxide than China- a byproduct of its booming economy. Those Chinese emissions are having a big impact in the U.S.”
Air pollution from our neighbor across the Pacific is harmful in and of itself, and now, to find out that precipitation patterns are changing due to the different size particles that make their way over the state is downright disturbing. As stated in the same CBS News article, “Understanding the factors that influence California’s rain and snow is important because what falls in the mountains is the main water source for most of the state’s 37 million people.”
There are a number of alarming environmental trends taking place in China that are also affecting Americans. The nation’s lax environmental management has lead to a shudder-inducing amount of water contamination in lakes and rivers. According to Yahoo News, “Hu Siyi, vice minister of water resources, said ‘last year that 20 percent of China's rivers were so polluted that their water quality was rated too toxic for human contact, and that up to 40 percent of the rivers were seriously polluted, according to state media.’”
An ongoing public campaign led by Chinese citizens tired of the state of their polluted rivers involves offering government officials in charge of protecting the water large sums of money to swim in the contaminated cesspools. The Yahoo News article names a few examples. Here’s one: “A Chinese businessman angry about a filthy river made an equally dirty dare: He'll give an environmental official about $32,000 just for swimming in the polluted waterway.” The officials have all declined to take the dare.
Why does America need to worry about China’s water crisis, aside from human compassion for the Chinese citizens? Because we import a tremendous amount of products, including food and natural supplements, some even labeled organic, from China. The water used to create those products or as irrigation for the crops that we import leaves its toxic residue on and in our food.
China’s air pollution and water contamination problems are a current environmental issue that the entire world needs to be concerned about. The country’s industrial boom is not ending anytime soon and without much of a voice, the citizens have very little power to enact change, other than modifying their own habits. But to make a real dent in China’s off-the-chart pollution levels, the other countries must put pressure on the nation to clean up its act and clamp down on its industrial pollution.
This month, the city of Garfield joined 111 other sites on New Jersey’s Superfund Priorities List. Now with a total of 112 sites on the list, New Jersey has the highest number of Superfund sites out of all the states. A portion of the city was once home to some industrial heavy-hitters including a tannery, a chemical plant, and a couple of electroplating companies.
The likely culprit was E.C. Electroplating where an industrial leak that occurred in 1983 is still causing ground and water contamination today. According to NorthJersey.com, contamination in the buildings surrounding the former electroplating facilities resulted in a “July 2010 test exceeding the federal health guidelines of chromium levels by 2,500 times.”
Hexavalent chromium is a known cancer-causing agent and is also linked to stomach ulcers, kidney and liver damage, asthma, and even death. Chromium was found in the basement of the city’s Fire House number 3 as well as the basements of a number of businesses and homes in the vicinity of the leak.
The Mayor of Garfield, Frank Calandriello, was pleased with the decision, although he expressed disdain at the fact that it has taken this long. “It’s sad that we have to be labeled as a Superfund site for what happened in 1983,” said Calandriello, “I wish it would have happened back then. Now that the EPA has stepped in I think they are handling it much better than the state.”
Cleanup is expected to begin after an investigation is performed to determine who is ultimately responsible for the hazardous waste situation at the Superfund site. Calandriello is pushing for the process to start relatively quickly. For the residents of Garfield, cleanup can’t come soon enough.