MERCED, Calif. -- The Central California city of Merced will pay a $1.5 million settlement after a federal jury found that thousands of residents of a subdivision were potentially exposed to a cancer-causing chemical, a newspaper reported Friday.
In March, the jury found that hazardous levels of hexavalent chromium had leaked from a manufacturing plant in Merced's Beachwood subdivision and spread into the air and water.
The jury found residents could have been exposed to the chemical – which was made famous in the film "Erin Brockovich" – for 25 years through the air, through water in an irrigation canal where residents swam and fished, and through floodwaters in 2006 that had picked up contaminated soil from the plant.
The jury also found that the neighborhood's public water supply was not contaminated by hexavalent chromium from the plant.
The Merced settlement – which was finalized in March but wasn't immediately reported – will go to more than 2,200 plaintiffs.
Merced city attorney Greg Diaz said the settlement was spurred by economic reasons, not by any liability involving chromium on the part of the city.
The city was a defendant in the original case, in which allegations included a wide variety of contaminants in the floodwater, including chromium, Diaz said.
However, he said the city's possible liability was limited to household waste that enters the sewer and storm water systems.
The now-shuttered Baltimore Aircoil plant, which manufactured cooling towers, used industrial chemicals to pressure-treat wood from 1969 to 1991. Merck, which owned Baltimore Aircoil until it sold it in 1985 to Amsted Industries, is leading the remediation effort. The plant was shut down in 1994.
Merck officials acknowledged during the first phase of the trial that hexavalent chromium contamination occurred but denied that any of it left the confines of the plant at levels that could have harmed the health of residents.
Merck first found hexavalent chromium at the plant site in 1984 and was issued a violation in 1987. But according to court documents, the company did not start remediation until 1991.
In the second phase of the trial, a new federal jury will determine which of the plaintiffs may have been harmed by the chemical exposure and determine possible punitive damages.