LOS ANGELES (CN) – Jurors in a federal courtroom in Los Angeles were given the fundamentals on South American mining, citrus orchards in California and water testing Friday in a case involving a California city who says their groundwater was contaminated due to “defectively designed fertilizer” imported to the United States around 1930.
The city of Pomona, California, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, said several of its groundwater wells are contaminated with perchlorate, which the city says can be traced back to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, more than 5,000 miles south of California. Perchlorate salts are often used as propellants for fireworks and as a component of rocket fuel.
The desert is home to one of the largest known deposits of nitrates in the world and was mined in the manufacturing of sodium nitrate fertilizer in the 20th century.
According to the lawsuit, the city said the North American subsidiary of Chilean-based chemical company SQM North America imported large quantities of fertilizer to California for citrus orchards in the 1930s.
Pomona is suing for damages, claiming contaminants seeped into the city’s groundwater, due to the high amount of chemicals that were not removed during the fertilizer’s manufacturing process.
Attorneys for SQM North America say its fertilizer was not used in the California city and its product was not defective.
The city’s expert witness, geochemist Dr. Neil Sturchio, from the University of Delaware, conducted isotope analysis of Pomona’s groundwater wells and said on the witness stand this week that 90 percent of the perchlorate contaminants tested in Pomona came from the Atacama Desert, which is where SQM North America imported its sodium nitrate fertilizer.
Perchlorates are either a naturally occurring or man-made anion. Sturchio said his analysis can distinguish between the two. Perchlorates are found in arid regions, like the Mojave Desert. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says perchlorates ingested by humans interfere with the function of the thyroid hormones.
Defendant’s attorney Bob Smith, with San Diego-based Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, asked if Sturchio’s analysis could determine which manufacturer produced the product that would have contained the perchlorates.
“Aren’t there multiple mining districts in the Atacama Desert?” Smith asked Sturchio. “Did you collect samples from those different mining sites?”
Sturchio said the samples were collected before he was involved in the isotope analysis with Pomona. He said he did visit the region on a separate trip but did not know exactly where the SQM mining facility was located.
On Friday, Ramon Aravena, research professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada and witness for the defense, said Sturchio’s methodology in gathering data and collecting samples was not adequate for forensic analysis.
Aravena’s area of expertise includes groundwater contamination by tracing isotopes to their source. He said there was no strategy in collecting samples in Sturchio’s analysis, because there were so few samples gathered from the Atacama Desert, which is 40,541 square miles.
Richard Sicotte, associate professor of economics at the University of Vermont and defendant’s witness, presented a timeline on the demand of nitrogen and sodium nitrate in California. Supply would have been choked from 1923 to 1958 as costs fluctuated and demand for nitrate shifted to the manufacturing of munitions during wartime.
Citrus crops would not have seen a high volume of sodium nitrate fertilizer as the city of Pomona alleges.
This is the second time the trial has played out before a Los Angeles jury. In June 2015, a federal jury found that SQM could not be held liable for perchlorate pollution found in Pomona’s groundwater.
Last year a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel found U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner’s exclusion of testimony from Sturchio on his method to collect and analyze perchlorate isotopes from groundwater was prejudicial.