Burns & McDonnell Pay $10 Million in Damages for Hazardous Sludge

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When a tannery provided the sludge generated from the production of leather to farmers as fertilizer, Cameron residents claimed to have suffered from a high rate of brain tumors, and farmers filed suit for property damage as the sludge allegedly contained a dangerous chemical.

In 2009, a Kansas City law firm, Wagstaff and Cartmell, filed a property lawsuit initially against Prime Tanning, located in St. Joseph, Missouri, Wismo Chemical Corp., an affiliated company, and Burns & McDonnell Engineering Company, who provided technical consulting to Prime Tanning. After Prime Tanning and Wismo Chemical Corp. filed for bankruptcy, they were dismissed from the lawsuit, leaving Burns & McDonnell as the sole defendant.

This lawsuit stems from the allegation that more than a dozen farmers in northwest Missouri used a fertilizer on their property that, as it turns out, contained hexavalent chromium, a dangerous chemical. This fertilizer was provided by Prime Tanning and was a by-product of the production of leather. This lawsuit is separate from other legal actions that involve health issues and personal injury claims.

Referred to also as sludge, the fertilizer allegedly contained hazardous chromium that has been found in farm fields in Buchanan, Clinton, DeKalb and Andrew Counties, according to a government study in 2010. While the study also says that the levels of chromium found were not hazardous to health, residents in and around Cameron raised fears that their community suffered from a high number of brain tumor cases.

Prime Tanning officials told regulators that hexavalent chromium was prohibited at the plant. Subsequently, the Kansas City Star found documentation stating that the company kept from 100,000 to 1 million pounds of the chemical at its site over the course of three years. Officials at Prime Tanning did not deny the information and responded that the chemical was not used in the tanning process. Instead, it was converted into a non-hazardous chromium, which was used in the process.

Leather experts claim that Prime Tanning was the last tannery in America to continue using hexavalent chromium and that the process of converting the chemical to a non-hazardous chromium can be faulty.

Even though Burns & McDonnell Engineering Co. denied in a press release to have caused harm to any property, they agreed on March 2, 2012 to pay a total of $10 million to 18 families that the court order lists as plaintiffs.

Currently, there are pending personal injury claims against Prime Tanning in Maine, where plaintiffs allege that the chromium caused brain tumors.