Burns & McDonnell settles case alleging hazardous sludge

A prominent Kansas City engineering firm agreed Friday to pay a total of $10 million to more than a dozen farmers in northwest Missouri who used a fertilizer on their property that allegedly contained hexavalent chromium, a dangerous chemical, according to a court order.

Burns & McDonnell Engineering Co. did not admit any wrongdoing and it continues “to deny it caused harm to any property,” said a press release issued by the company and the plaintiffs’ attorney.

The class action lawsuit covers farmland in four counties — Buchanan, Clinton, DeKalb and Andrew — and spans 1983 through early 2009. The suit was filed in 2009 by Wagstaff and Cartmell, a Kansas City law firm.

It’s unclear how many farms were involved, but the court order lists 18 families as plaintiffs.

The lawsuit is separate from other legal actions that involve health issues.

The chromium allegedly was part of sludge generated from the production of leather at a St. Joseph tannery known as Prime Tanning. The tannery provided the sludge as fertilizer in part with the approval of the government over three decades. Burns & McDonnell provided the tannery with technical consulting during some of that period.

A government study in 2010 said hexavalent chromium had been found in farm fields in the four counties between Cameron and St. Joseph, but it said the levels were not hazardous to health.

The chromium was discovered after residents in and around Cameron raised fears that their community suffered from a high number of brain tumor cases. Initially the state’s investigation focused on a factory near Cameron.

After the revelation that hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, has been used at the plant, Prime Tanning, a Maine company, and an affiliated company, Wismo Chemical Corp., filed for bankruptcy and were dismissed from the property lawsuit, leaving Burns & McDonnell as the sole defendant, according to a press release.

“The decision to resolve these claims at this time was a business decision based on the expense of multiple trials and the distraction from the company’s business,” the press release said.

Circuit Judge Randall R. Jackson of Buchanan County issued the court order.

Other claims involving personal injury against the tannery are pending in bankruptcy court in Maine. Some plaintiffs have claimed brain tumors were caused by the chromium.

Well-known environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who visited Cameron, has had a part in the personal injury lawsuits.

When questions were first raised, Prime Tanning officials told regulators that hexavalent chromium was prohibited at the plant. But after The Kansas City Star found documents that showed the company kept from 100,000 to 1 million pounds of the chemical at its site over three years, officials acknowledged it was there, but they said it was not used in the tanning process. Instead, they were converting it into a chromium that was not as hazardous to use in the process.

Leather experts said Prime Tanning was the last tannery in America to continue using hexavalent chromium. They said the process of converting the chemical can be faulty.

The company that bought Prime Tanning three years ago does not use hexavalent chromium.