California City Fights Chemical Giant Over ‘Poisoned’ Groundwater

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A Southern California city said defectively designed fertilizer used on citrus orchards from the 1930s through the 1950s contaminated its drinking water. In federal court this week, a jury will hear the city’s claims against the U.S. subsidiary of a Chilean chemical company that imported the product.

In U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, an attorney for the city of Pomona said Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile’s North American branch (SQMNA) “poisoned” the city’s groundwater as large amounts of perchlorate seeped into the ground from the fertilizer. Large of amounts of perchlorate may cause hyperthyroidism in humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SQMNA mined sodium nitrate in the Atacama Desert in Chile for its fertilizers. The city said the company did not properly remove the perchlorate chemical and that’s why it is suing on product liability.

Pomona’s attorney Kenneth Sansone, with San Francisco-based SL Environmental Law Group, said millions of dollars have been spent to treat the groundwater.

SQMNA’s attorney Bob Smith, with San Diego-based law firm Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, said the company should not be blamed for Pomona’s problems with its groundwater, because other industries in the area have used perchlorate, like in the aerospace industry.

Pomona, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, originally sued SQM in 2010 and based its claims primarily on the work of Dr. Neil Sturchio, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Delaware.

In June 2015, a federal jury found that SQM could not be held liable for perchlorate pollution found in Pomona’s groundwater.

But last year a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel found U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner’s exclusion of testimony from Sturchio on a method to collect and analyze perchlorate isotopes from groundwater was prejudicial.

Sturchio, along with several other expert witnesses, are expected to take the stand over the next week in the trial.

During jury selection jurors were asked if they had any familiarity with geology, water contamination, agriculture, farming practices or product liability.


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