The City of Brunswick blames Honeywell for high levels of mercury and PCBs in its waterways. Credit: Mary Landers/The Current

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 8:20 p.m. Dec. 6, 2022 to include a response from Honeywell.

The City of Brunswick is suing Honeywell and Georgia Power over pollutants on city property that allegedly came from the companies’ nearby industrial activity beginning in the 1950s. A federal Superfund site established in 1996 to clean up the pollutants does not include city property.

In a complaint filed in late October in the Superior Court of Glynn County, the city argues that mercury and PCBs on its property from a long-defunct manufacturing facility and a more recently retired electric power plant amounts to a continuing trespass and nuisance. Fish and crabs in the area’s waterways have accumulated levels of mercury and PCBs toxic to people who eat them. The city requests a jury trial with the jury determining punitive damages.

The Brunswick-area site is where Honeywell and its predecessors operated a plant that produced chlorine and caustic soda for use in manufacturing processes including the paper industry and the food processing. The process used, called mercury cell chlor-alkali, has been phased out in the U.S. because of the mercury pollution it released. Only one such facility remained in the U.S. as of May 2022. At the Brunswick facility, the process also released another chemical, Aroclor 1268, a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) that was used to extend the life of anodes used in production.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that is especially dangerous to children. EPA consider PCBs a probable human carcinogen. PCBs have also been linked to thyroid hormone toxicity and can disrupt reproductive function.

The industrial property and surrounding marsh was added to the Superfund list as LCP Chemicals Superfund Site in 1996 with Honeywell and Georgia Power named as the responsible parties. Other prior industrial activity on the 830-acre site includes an oil refinery, a paint manufacturing company, and a power plant. A 2016 consent decree requires the companies to conduct a $29 million cleanup, focused on the marsh and creeks. Future cleanups will address groundwater and upland areas.

The companies reached a 2006 settlement that paid Glynn County $18 million and provided cleanup of a caustic brine pool in an effort to protect groundwater. In a  2020 settlement with the state, Honeywell agreed to pay Georgia $4 million for use in natural resource restoration projects. Brunswick did not join either of these suits. 

Brunswick’s suit focuses on contamination of its property outside the boundaries of the Superfund site.

The suit alleges that Honeywell long knew of the danger of emitting mercury but continued to do it anyway, even propping up another company, LCP Chemicals, to avoid facing the cost of a cleanup that the shutdown of the facility would bring.

“Defendant Honeywell used the power that it held as a creditor of LCP as a tool to keep the Plant in operation for the express purpose of avoiding and delaying removal of the tons of mercury and tons of PCBs that it had dumped on the Plant Site, in adjacent marshes and waters within the City of Brunswick and onto property of the City of Brunswick. It thereby maintained and aggravated the nuisance and trespasses that it had created,” the complaint states. 

John Bell of the Augusta-based Bell Firm is lead counsel for Brunswick. He’s working with Pamela James from his firm, City Attorney Brian Corry, Robert Killian of the Brunswick-based Killian Law Firm and Robert Jackson of Atlanta-based Robert B. Jackson, IV, LLC.

Bell declined to comment on the suit.

In their filing of Nov. 18, Honeywell and Georgia Power attorneys moved the case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia. The case has been assigned to Chief Judge J. Randal Hall.

“Honeywell strongly disputes the allegations in this lawsuit,” Honeywell spokeswoman Victoria Streitfield wrote in an email.  “Honeywell, along with two other former LCP site owners, has worked for nearly 30 years to conduct a safe and effective cleanup, protect human health and the environment, and prepare the site for redevelopment.  All our work is done under the supervision and direction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

She highlighted the progress made on the Superfund site: “We have achieved significant milestones in the remediation of the former LCP site. As a result of the removal of contaminated soils and subsequent health and ecological risk assessments, EPA has determined that no additional upland soil remediation is necessary. And we have begun construction of the EPA-approved marsh remedy. We have monitored groundwater underneath the site for more than 25 years and will continue to work with EPA on the cleanup.”

But Brunswick alleges that “Defendant Honeywell has stored, disposed, discharged and released its hazardous wastes onto property of the City of Brunswick and in the waters and marshlands abutting the property of the City of Brunswick in order to avoid the costs of safe storage and safe disposal of its hazardous waste.” The resulting contamination has damaged the value of Brunswick’s property and prevents citizens from fully using and enjoying the property, the suit alleges. Among those uses is fishing. “The fish, oysters and crabs in the area of the Turtle River and adjacent waters are unfit for human consumption as a result of Honeywell’s contamination,” the city writes in its complaint.

Streitfield wrote that Honeywell’s relationship with Brunswick has been important.

“Their partnership has been crucial to the progress we have made in remediating the site, and we believe the best way to achieve the optimal outcome for the community is via a productive dialogue rather than litigation,” she wrote.

Georgia Power’s Plant McManus operated in the same area as LCP/Honeywell, at times burning coal, which releases mercury into the air. Some of that mercury migrated to Brunswick’s marshes and shoreline contributing to pollution on the city’s property, the suit alleges.

But Georgia Power rejects this argument based on the fact that Plant McManus last burned coal in 1972. Trespass and nuisance claims are subject to a four-year statute of limitations in Georgia, the company argues in its filing.

The initial filing by Honeywell and Georgia Power moved the suit to federal court, with the companies arguing the move was necessary because of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s involvement in the cleanup to date.

Honeywell and Georgia Power are required to answer the city’s complaint by Dec. 9.

Activists including Daniel Parshley, who is retired from the nonprofit Glynn Environmental Coalition, are watching the suit.

“(Honeywell) has a history of not doing right for our community, and yes, that continues to this day,” he said. 

Mary Landers is a reporter in Coastal Georgia focusing on the environment for The Current. It's a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time...