Back in September 2016, when The Planet, if not the world, was new, this newspaper did a long investigative piece headed, "Is Dade Being Poisoned Through Its Drinking Water? More Than You Ever Wanted to Know about Chromium-6."
(Photo of C&S Plating from Dade Tax Assessor's Site)
In those days, concern about the carcinogenic effects of hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, haunted local internet discourse. A CNN news show had featured an online interactive map of the United States showing levels of chromium-6 in each community's drinking water. Clicking on the extreme northwestern corner of Georgia showed that Dade County's water tested at 1.17 ppb chromium-6. That "ppb" stands for part-per-billion, which translates to about one drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
That's not a lot of chromium-6. Though it is in fact way higher than California's public health goal of 0.02 ppb, it's way lower than the Georgia state maximum of 10 ppb. In any case, Dade Water Authority manager Doug Anderton, interviewed for the article, said it wasn't enough to make anyone stop drinking Dade water. But Anderton did say he'd like to know why Dade's chromium-6 level was so exponentially higher than the 0.198 and 0.201 for neighboring Walker and Catoosa, respectively.
Chromium-6 generally gets into an area's water supply from industrial waste, noted Anderton, but: "There's no industry between here and Valley Head [Ala.], where our water source starts at," he said.
Now, three years later, it has turned out that Anderton was wrong about that.
Recently, a source who wished to remain anonymous called The Planet to point out that the business of C&S Plating and Machine--which at 9077 Highway 11 is in fact squarely and fairly between Trenton and Valley Head--is industrial chrome plating, a process that is in fact entirely dependent on the use of chromium-6.
C&S Plating is right off Highway 11 South between Trenton and Rising Fawn, but its position--tucked behind Reeves Heating and Air--makes it inconspicuous if not invisible from the road. In 11 years of Chamber of Commerce luncheons, Industrial Development Authority meetings and generally sticking its beak into the business of Dade County, The Planet had never come across the name C&S.
Nor had Doug Anderton, whom The Planet re-interviewed following the anonymous tip. "I know where Reeves Heating and Air is, but I didn't know there was another company behind it," said Doug Anderton. "I didn't know these folks existed."
"Never heard of them," said Dade County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley.
Google the chromium plating industry and you'll figure out pretty quickly why a business that uses hexavalent chromium might prefer to keep a low profile. Articles online have titles like: Review of Carcinogenicity of Hexavalent Chrome, Americans Deserve the Protection of Official Safety Standards, and Confronting the Looming Hexavalent Chromium Ban. The list goes on. In the hit movie Erin Brockovich, chromium-6 was the bad guy, the carcinogen that was wiping out the entire community after an unscrupulous company dumped it illegally and poisoned the local water supply.
Chromium plating is a an important safeguard against corrosion in industry. Aerospace equipment manufacturers in particular depend on it. But the hexavalent chromium used in the process kills people, and the Brockovich movie as well as action by environmental safety advocacy groups have brought that to the public's attention. One online article about the industry said many chromium plating companies are moving outside the United States, while another pointed out that in England and the European Union, use of chromium-6 is even more harshly regulated, in some instances prohibited entirely.
"Everybody knows we're here"
Be all that as it may, James Conkle, owner and CEO of C&S Plating in Dade County, Georgia, told The Planet by phone on Tuesday that his company is not trying to hide.
“Everybody knows we’re down here," said Conkle. "I do a lot of work for local people.”
Not local individuals, he clarified, but local industries. He said C&S services the local lumber and carpet industries as well as industrial textiles and hydraulics.
Conkle acknowledged that C&S had been in Dade since 1995 and that he had bought it two years ago. He described the company as a small one, just himself and five employees.
When asked if the electroplating process that is his company's stock in trade uses chromium-6, he waffled a little at first--"I don’t know if it’s chromium-6 or not, but it’s hexavalent chrome” (these are two ways to write the same thing)--but when asked if he knew it was the dangerous kind of chromium that caused cancer, and had featured in the Julia Roberts movie, he said, "Yes," and added: "We’re heavily regulated by the EPA.”
Which brings us to the next point. The Planet's anonymous caller had made serious accusations about C&S's potential poisoning of Dade County's groundwater.
The electroplating process, explained the caller, involves immersing large machine parts into a huge tank of chromium-6 and water. Then the process calls for some kind of electrical current to be passed through the water, attracting the chrome to the part it is meant to coat. These parts are large and unwieldy, said the caller, and at C&S, pretty regularly, say two or three times a year, they slip out of place and hit the lining of the tank. Then there is also the natural corrosiveness of the solution. One way or the other, said the caller, the water-chromium-6 solution seeps into the ground from the tank, and a catchment basin underneath the tank, designed to protect against spills, had rotted away years ago.
The caller said C&S was regularly visited by an environmental inspector from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, but that the inspector had never noticed there was no basin under the tank anymore. The caller said that C&S workers knew about the safety violation and heaved a sigh of relief every time the inspector walked out, having failed to spot it again.
Another way the caller said that C&S was polluting Dade's water was through filling up the tank inattentively. The water in the chromium-plating tank must be replenished regularly, said the caller, and a worker often left a hose running to fill it up, walked away and forgot it, allowing the water-chromium-6 solution to run out onto the ground. When rain came, it carried the polluted water off with it, said the caller. The caller said that the homeowners next door to C&S had complained to the company that the well they used to water their garden had become tainted by the runoff.
Approached by The Planet, the neighboring couple acknowledged the problem with the well, which the wife said they had not used since 2012, but declined to be interviewed for this article.
As to the rest of the caller's allegations, C&S owner Conkle denied them flatly. No, that’s not true," he said. "We wouldn't do that."
As far as letting contaminated water hit the ground, said Conkle: “We have a scrubber system that scrubs the fumes off of the chrome tank, cleans the air before it can blow it out. We will recirculate that water that stays contained inside the scrubbing system and we’ll use that to refill our chrome tank back up, but it never goes outside the building.”
He again stressed that his shop was regulated strictly by environmental authorities. "They come at least once a year," he said. He had to file quarterly, annual and biannual reports on air and shop quality, said Conkle. “OSHA also gets involved with it some," he said. "They come down here about once a year. They make the guys wear sensors all day long to make sure the air is good and clean."
And wastewater is also closely monitored, said Conkle. “I have to have a hazardous waste company come in and dispose of the hazardous waste properly,” he said. He is required to keep records of that, said Conkle.
The Planet's anonymous caller said that most people in Dade County didn't know they had as a neighbor a company that uses chromium-6, and the surprise of the county boss and water company manager would seem to validate that.
But Conkle said he wasn't worried about being "outed." “Some people pay big money for advertising," he said. "I don’t have it."
He did caution The Planet, though, not to give readers the idea he could do decorative chrome plating. "I get that request quite often but I don’t have that capability, to do the flashy, shiny chrome," he said. “Ours is industrial-part chrome plating and grinding services, machine shop.”
The Planet's anonymous caller had described C&S as having one of the bigger chrome-plating operations of its type in the United States. Conkle said that wasn't accurate. “We don’t do the big humongous parts," he said. "There’s lot of parts that I can’t do because they’re too big for me."
Fortunately for prospective clients, said Conkle, he was surrounded by other chromium plating companies that could handle the bigger jobs. He said there were larger chromium-plating companies in Alabama, Kentucky and North Carolina, as well as more locally in Chattanooga at Lookout Valley and Amnicola Highway.
EPD will check it out
The Planet called the Georgia Environmental Division in Atlanta and spoke to Philip Henderson there. The Planet relayed the caller's concerns about C&S, and Henderson said the EPD took such complaints seriously and checked each out. Henderson said that C&S was in fact on his agency's list of regulated companies, but he shared that inspectors were more apt to be concerned in a shop of that kind with the danger of air, rather than water, contamination. Hexavalent chromium has been known to cause lung cancer, particularly in people who work in a facility that uses it.
But he promised to faithfully pass the water contamination complaint on to the regional EPD employee who handles local complaints, a Nancy Parast. The Planet will undertake to faithfully pass on to its readers any developments it can discover related to the EPD's examination.
One more nugget of information before we close this report: Doug Anderton, the longtime Dade Water Authority manager who will retire at the end of this month, had vowed to faithfully pass on to The Planet the results of any updated testing of the chromium-6 level in Dade's drinking water. He reported by phone this afternoon that he had checked with his EPD sources and learned that there had been none since 2015, whence came the 1.17 ppb number. "It's an unregulated contaminant," he said. "So when to test is sort of up to them. They said they might do one this year."
Anderson said that this indicated to him that EPD did not find the current level of chromium-6 in Dade County's drinking water a matter of alarm.
Note: Interested readers may go back and read The Planet's September 2016 article about the chromium-6 scare then by clicking The Planet's image at right.