In the movie “Erin Brockovich,” a UCLA chemistry professor tells Julia Roberts, playing the title role, that there are three kinds of chromium. One form is necessary for good health, a second form, trivalent chromium, is relatively benign, and a third form, hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, is a dangerous carcinogen.
In real life, as in the 2000 movie, Brockovich, a legal researcher, discovered that Hinkley, Calif., a small town near Barstow, in the Mojave desert, had a hexavalent chromium problem. She found that it was being used as an anti-corrosive agent by a local utility, Pacific Gas & Electric. Hundreds of residents filed suit after discovering that it had contaminated drinking water and was causing cancers and other health problems.
Thanks to Brockovich, they won a $333 million court settlement from PG&E, and brought a halt to the pollution.
Hexavalent chromium is used in the production of stainless steel, one of ESCO’s products.
Like Hinkley Calif., Northwest Portland also has an hexavalent chromium problem, although as of yet there is no evidence it is present in large enough concentrations to cause cancers or other health problems.
Documents released on Sept. 9 by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to the Northwest Examiner and Cascadia Times show that ESCO, the owner of two steel foundries in the Northwest neighborhood, has been emitting what appear to be very low levels of airborne hexavalent chromium from both factories since at least 2005. The DEQ has been sitting on the data for as much as four years. The DEQ has not said why it waited so long to release the data. The newspapers first asked for the data in mid-July.
In fact, the DEQ has provided misleading, if not altogether false, information about hexavalent chromium to residents. At a neighborhood meeting in May, Greg Lande, a top DEQ air quality specialist, denied any knowledge that ESCO is a source of hexavalent chromium. According to a videotape of the meeting, held at Chapman School,
Lande said, “There is hexavelant chromium (chrome VI) that can be measured in this neighborhood, but I can’t tell you if its coming from ESCO or the machine shop next door.”
Lande did not respond to a request for an interview about his statements.
Moreover, neither the DEQ nor ESCO has ever notified the neighborhood or the public that ESCO has been emitting hexvalent chromium emissions among the 64 toxic substances in its air pollution, said Sharon Genacsi, chairwoman of the Northwest District Associaton’s Health and Environment Committee.
“We all saw Erin Brockavich, so we knew how serious Chrome VI is as an environmental pollutant,” said Genacsi Genasci, chair of the NWDA’s Health and Environment Committee.
“I remember the DEQ saying in answer to our queries whether there could be Chrome 6 in the Esco heavy metals emissions, that DEQ had found some Chrome VI, but they didn’t know where it came from,” Genasci says.
“We asked DEQ to monitor for Chrome VI, and we were told it was a special test, and would be too expensive.” Genacsi says. Year after year we brought up the subject of Chrome VI, but got no answers. They were always ‘looking into it’. “ This year we have monitored for it ourselves, and are waiting now to see if Chrome VI is in the ESCO metals mix.”
Apparently, the DEQ did not think the tests were too expensive for ESCO itself to conduct. The DEQ required ESCO to test for hexavalent chromium in its air pollution at least once every five years at each of the two plants.
To conduct the tests, ESCO hired another firm, Horizon Engineering of Portland. According to its web site, Horizon Engineering was founded in 1977 with the purpose of serving the environmental and energy needs of industrial clients. Although capable of handling a wide range of environmental engineering, most of its work is centered on air pollution emission testing.
Horizon conducted the tests at the main ESCO plant on Northwest 25th Street on June 2, 6 and 7, 2005. It tested emissions at the other ESCO plant on Northwest Brewer Street on June 15-17, 2005. An analysis of the data by this reporter shows that emissions of hexavalent chromium at ESCO amount to between 1 and 17 pounds per year, or 10 and 170 pounds per decade. Hexavalent chromium does not break down in the environment and accumulates in organisms.
The EPA says that the respiratory tract is the major target organ for chromium 6 toxicity, both for acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) inhalation exposures. Shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing were reported from a case of acute exposure to chromium 6, while perforations and ulcerations of the septum, bronchitis, decreased pulmonary function, pneumonia, and other respiratory effects have been noted from chronic exposure. Human studies have clearly established that inhaled chromium 6 is a human carcinogen, resulting in an increased risk of lung cancer. Animal studies have shown chromium 6 to cause lung tumors via inhalation exposure.
Most of the 64 toxic substances emitted by ESCO have more than one known or suspected health effect. In addition to 7 substances that are known to cause cancer, another 12 are suspected carcinogens.
According to information on these substances gathered by Environmental Defense and published at its web site www.scorecard.org from government environmental authorities, 39 are of the air toxics emitted by ESCO are classified as respiratory toxicants, 37 are classified as neurotoxins, 37 are skin or sense organ toxicants, 28 are gastrointestinal or liver toxicants, 26 are cardiovascular or blood toxicants, 24 are kidney toxicants, 22 are developmental toxicants, 19 are reproductive toxicants, 16 are Immunotoxicants, 8 are endocrine toxicants, and 1 is a musculoskeletal toxicant.
Genacsi, the producer of “What’s in the Air?”, a 1999 documentary filmed in Northwest Porrtland, Richmond, Falif., and Seattle on air quality in the neighborhood, has been battling ESCO over its smelly and toxic emissions for 15 years.
When she started the battle, she says, the DEQ said they did not know what was coming out of ESCO because they hadn’t monitored and didn’t have the money to monitor. In the early part of this decade, she and Dr. Robert Amundson led an effort to conduct citizen monitoring, which discovered more than 70 toxic chemicals in the air., including hexavalent chromium. They concluded that ESCO was the source of much of the pollution “by following our noses.”
At various times, more than 100 of her neighbors joined her in the fight, usually meeting at her house to discuss issues and strategy.