PHILADELPHIA (CN) – After more than four years of legal positioning, opening statements and testimony began Monday in the case of a chemical manufacturing giant accused of causing a “cancer-cluster” in a rural village in northern Illinois.
In the first of 31 related cases filed against Philadelphia-based Rohm and Haas Co. and its subsidiaries, plaintiff Joanne Branham claimed the company knew for years that a massive plume of carcinogenic groundwater had migrated into the 1,000-person village of McCullom Lake, located about a mile downhill.
Rather than alerting the public, Branham says the defendant companies conspired to conceal the severity of the contamination and remained silent as residents used water from toxic wells for drinking and cleaning, resulting in a raft of rare brain cancers, including the rare and aggressive glioblastoma that killed her 63-year-old husband, Franklin, in June 2004.
Kevin Van Wart, of Chicago-based Kirkland & Ellis, told the jury that the plume, along with the notion of a cancer-cluster existing in the village of McCullom Lake, is “a courtroom invention” which “exists nowhere outside this litigation.”
He said that cancer is “a reality of everyday living” and cautioned the jury to decide the case “not on the basis of sympathy, but on the basis of science.”
Joanne Branham’s former neighbor, Bryan Freund, says he also was diagnosed with a related, rare brain cancer called oligodendroglioma, as was another neighbor, Kurt Weisenberger.
“Three people in a tiny town, on the same street, homes side by side,” said Branham’s attorney, Aaron Freiwald of Philadelphia-based Layser & Freiwald. “That’s unheard of.”
The only credible cause for the cancers, he said, is the thousands of pounds of chemicals dumped, spilled and leaked during the manufacture of various products at the plant, including a latex product used in food packaging.
“When you make dinner, you throw the trash in the garbage.”
The defendant companies, Freiwald said, “dumped their garbage in an 8.2-acre, 16-foot-high hole in the ground.”
Freiwald said that the sludge pit, which the defense referred to as a “settling basin” or “lagoon,” was designed in a way that would guarantee leaks.
He said that the carcinogen vinyl chloride, a raw material used to create the latex product, was at least partly to blame for the cancers.
But Van Wart said that authorities have never linked vinyl chloride exposure to brain cancer, and that angiocarcinoma of the liver — an epidemiological signature of such exposure — had not been identified in a single relevant case.
He said the methodology to be presented by the plaintiff’s expert was seriously flawed, and that “drawing circles around cases you already know about” is like a “lousy cowboy” who shoots his gun into the side of a barn, then proceeds to draw bull’s-eyes around the bullet holes.
Freiwald called his first witness, a “special projects leader” for Rohm and Haas named Thomas Bielas, who was questioned about the decommissioning of the pit and about the general history of the companies’ waste management practices.
Bielas is slated to testify for several days in a trial that is expected to last eight to 10 weeks.