Contaminant Focus – Chromium
Updated: May 12
As part of a series of posts on common contaminants that ERS deals with, today we are looking at chromium - which unfortunately is a fairly common contaminant of soils found around the UK in areas with historical Chromium works.
What is Chromium
Chromium is an abundant metal that man has harnessed for hundreds of years as a pigment, a wood preservative, as a fixing agent in tanning and photography, and in metallurgy.
It exists in a variety of oxidation states but hexavalent chromium (CrVI) is particularly problematic in the environment as it is soluble and toxic. From a human health perspective it can cause cancer, asthma, and tissue damage, including to unborn children, through inhalation, ingestion and direct contact.
Perhaps most famously, chromium was the contaminant of concern in Julia Roberts’ Oscar winning performance as Erin Brockovich in the film of the same name – a real-life story about a legal clerk who takes on a large energy corporation (Pacific Gas and Electric Company) regarding its culpability for the Hinkley groundwater contamination incident.
ERS’ involvement in chromium also stretches across the UK and into North America, on sites ranging from chrome plating works to timber treatment works, applying techniques from bioremediation to chemical reduction. However, much of our experience has been gained close to our Head Office in Glasgow.
Chromium’s Legacy in Glasgow
The Shawfield Chemical Works was established in 1920 by James and John White on the site of their father’s failed soap business and became the world’s largest producer of chromium salts for much of its 150 year lifespan. Working conditions at the site were notoriously poor and the health effects on workers extensive, with many losing their nasal septum creating a whistling noise, earning them the nickname “White’s Canaries”. Safety regulations and workers’ health concerns were ignored, prompting then journalist, and later Labour Party founder and leader, Keir Hardie to publish a scathing attack on John Campbell White (now Lord Overtoun), but even this had little effect.
The legacy of the works affects Rutherglen and the wider Glasgow area. Millions of tonnes of Chromium Ore Processing Residue (COPR) were deposited locally, but contamination from the works can be found from Glasgow Airport all the way to Carnbroe. Much of it was dumped up to 10metres deep in exhausted clay pits, but some was also used as a construction material before the dangers of the product were known. It was even used as a salt replacement for de-icing pavements!
In the 1990s the local authorities investigated many of the worst sites with high concentrations of CrVI in soils and in the groundwater affecting many burns and rivers, including the Clyde itself. Since then millions have been spent on investigation and remediation through both public and private sector investment. However, many of these problems areas remain and cause public concern, which is still being reported in the news today, such as this incident where SEPA was asked to investigate a yellow burn in Glasgow, a typical indication of chromium water contamination.
ERS maintains an archive of old newspaper articles of contamination incidents, included one where we undertook emergency remediation works when COPR was discovered at the Hampden Park stadium in terracing and under the pitch. This was just before the 2002 Champions League final was due to be played there!
Hampden Rocked by Toxic Scare No 2 (Glaswegian, 28/03/2002)
Council Asked to Foot £20,000 Bill (Evening Times, 24/03/2002)
Champions League Final Hit by Toxic Waste Scare (Record, 15/03/2002)
Toxic Dump Threat to Hampden's Euro Final (Sun, 15/03/2002)
Clean Up This Toxic Site (The Extra, 28/06/2001)
Cancer Poison in Our Water (NOTW, 27/08/2000)
Militant Mum's Chain Reaction (Glaswegian, 22/01/1998)
Danger in the Sand (Glaswegian, 26/06/1997)
Toxic River (Glaswegian, 19/06/1997)
ERS’ Experience of Remediating COPR Contamination
ERS has a wide range of experience in treating COPR and CrVI contamination of soil and water on many different types of sites. We have also won industry awards for our innovative approaches to projects involving bioremediation, chemical reduction and stabilisation of COPR.
Some of our full-scale remediation projects include:
Carnbroe, North Lanarkshire: chemical reduction for disposal – Carnbroe
Boughton, Northamptonshire: remediation of of impacted soils and groundwater chrome plating works by chemical reduction, pump and treat and in-situ groundwater treatment
Rocker, Montana, US: ferrous sulphate remediation of Copper/ Chrome/ Arsenic timber treatment chemicals
Oatlands, Glasgow: chemical reduction at an ERS soil treatment centre for disposal
Lesser Hampden, Glasgow: emergency disposal from before the 2002 Champions League Final
Falkirk, Stirlingshire: groundwater treatment by chemical reduction and dissolved air flotation providing a 99.9% improvement; system (Brownfield Briefing Awards Winner)
M74 road extension, Glasgow: stabilization of 100,000 tonnes of chromium impacted soils (Brownfield Briefing Awards Winner)
This experience and understanding of working with CrVI has enabled ERS to safely undertake a wide variety of other work activities in and around the COPR affected sites, including:
Extensive site investigations for many developments including the M74 road extension
Detailed hydrogeological investigations including full scale pump tests with treatment of the abstracted groundwater
Geotechnical characterization and stabilization testing, both in the field and in our laboratory