Suit Over Pomona Water Pollution Revived by 9th
(CN) - The 9th Circuit on Friday reinstated testimony from a scientist in a trial over whether materials from Chile contaminated a California city's water supply.
Pomona, Calif., sued SQM North America Corporation (SQMNA) in 2010, claiming that sodium nitrate the company imported into Southern California between 1927 and the 1950s increased perchlorate levels in municipal water wells.
The city based its claims primarily on the work of Neil Sturchio, director of the Environmental Isotope Geochemistry Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Sturchio used a method called "stable isotope analysis" to determine that natural sodium nitrate from Chile's Atacama Desert, which SQMNA had marketed as fertilizer, was the main source of Pomona's perchlorate problem.
The company attacked the claims on several fronts, arguing first that Pomona had sued too late and had not suffered an economic loss able that would let it seek compensation. SQNMA also tried to exclude Sturchio's testimony as unreliable and outside the scientific mainstream.
U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner in Los Angeles agreed as to Sturchio, and the parties agreed to a conditional dismissal to hurry along appellate review.
A three-judge appeals panel reversed on Friday and remanded the case to Los Angeles for trial.
The lower court did not have the authority to question Sturchio's conclusions, only his methodology - which is sound, the unanimous panel ruled.
Sturchio published his four-step methodology in a 2011 manual commissioned by the Department of Defense, according to the ruling.
"Dr. Sturchio and two other laboratories compiled the Guidance Manual, which shows that the methods Dr. Sturchio employed were reviewed by other laboratories and subject to inter-laboratory calibration," wrote U.S. District Judge Michael Simon, sitting on the panel by designation from Portland, Ore. "In particular, Dr. Sturchio has collaborated on the methodology used in this case with Dr. J.K. Böhlke, who is among the world's leading authorities on the measuring and reporting of isotope ratios."
Simon added that trial courts can exclude expert testimony "only when it is either irrelevant or unreliable."
"Facts casting doubt on the credibility of an expert witness and contested facts regarding the strength of a particular scientific method are questions reserved for the fact finder," he concluded.