Testimony outlines early years of waste pit, chemical production

PHILADELPHIA – A Ringwood manufacturing plant likely began using a chemical blamed in lawsuits for a brain cancer cluster in McCullom Lake several years earlier than first believed, according to memos and testimony in the second day of a civil trial.

The chemical in question is vinylidene chloride, which 32 lawsuits to date allege broke down into carcinogenic vinyl chloride and caused the cancers. Attorneys for defendant Rohm and Haas told jurors in opening statements Monday that the plant did not start using vinylidene chloride until 1966 as a key ingredient in Serfene, a barrier coating with many uses, such as lining potato chip bags.

But attorneys representing the first plaintiff presented evidence that production may have started as early as 1962, just after the plant opened an 8-acre, 15-foot-deep pit to receive the wastes from its operations – a pit, plaintiffs’ attorney Aaron Freiwald argued Tuesday, leaked from the start.

Freiwald represents longtime McCullom Lake resident Joanne Branham, whose husband, Franklin, died in 2004 at age 63 from aggressive glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer. Her lawsuit and the others allege that residents in McCullom Lake and the Lakeland Park subdivision in McHenry developed brain and pituitary tumors through years of air and groundwater exposure to vinyl chloride from the neighboring plant.

Rohm and Haas attorneys reject the idea that contamination from the plant reached the village’s private wells or reached air concentrations remotely high enough to cause sickness. Philadelphia-based company officials also says that studies don’t link vinyl chloride exposure to brain cancer, but liver angiosarcoma, a very rare cancer.

On the witness stand Tuesday was plant special projects manager Tom Bielas, who has spent his entire 35-year professional career working at the plant. The plant was owned by Morton International from 1950 until Rohm and Haas bought the company in 1999. Dow Chemical Co. last year bought Rohm and Haas.

Bielas confirmed that he testified in a September 2008 deposition that vinylidene chloride first was used at the plant between 1962 and 1963, not 1966. Freiwald subsequently presented Morton several memos indicating that vinylidene chloride was stored and used in several locations on-site as early as 1964.

Other memos presented by Freiwald stated that raw vinyl chloride itself might have been used on several occasions as experts tried to develop new Serfene recipes.

Freiwald also asked Bielas about the 8-acre waste pit – the pit was used from 1960 until 1977, during which time it received millions of gallons of Morton’s waste, records show.

The lining of the pit was made from a mixture of sand and clay, according to records. A hand-written memo from the time of construction stated that the soil underneath was sand and gravel and therefore “highly pervious,” meaning that water can easily move through it.

“Any seepage that would have come through the bottom of this basin, the company would have known that the liquid, water or otherwise, would encounter very permeable sand and gravel, is that correct?” Freiwald asked Bielas, who answered “yes.”

State inspection records hint that seepage began early on, Freiwald alleges. An April 1964 inspection report by the Illinois Sanitary Water Board, a predecessor to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, said that the pit was dry because it either evaporated or seeped beyond the barrier. At least two other subsequent state water board reports in 1966 and 1968, presented by Freiwald, make the same observation.

Bielas is expected to be a witness for the next several days, and the trial before the jury of 10 women and two men is expected to take eight to 10 weeks.

Franklin and Joanne Branham lived in McCullom Lake from 1960 until 1997 and raised five children there. They retired to Arizona, but Franklin Branham began getting seizures several years later. Doctors diagnosed him with glioblastoma in May 2004 – he died a month later on the front porch of his home as two of his daughters arrived to celebrate Father’s Day with him.

Bielas’ role with the plant has involved him with the alleged cancer cluster in other ways besides the witness stand.

Bielas offered in an Aug. 19, 2010, letter to County Board Chairman Ken Koehler for the plant to pay up to $50,000 to test McCullom Lake wells, up to $5,000 to test air, and up to $50,000 to commission an independent analysis of the theories of vinyl chloride exposure in the village.

According to court depositions, Bielas participated in a private meeting between Rohm and Haas executives and the McHenry County Department of Health prior to the department’s May 2006 pronouncement that no cluster exists in McCullom Lake and that the plant’s pollution is not responsible for any illnesses. Health officials showed the executives portions of its presentation before its release to the public at a town-hall meeting.

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