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Class Certified in Suit Against General Mills

(CN) - A federal judge certified a class of Minneapolis residents who say General Mills polluted air and groundwater with 15,000 gallons of carcinogenic solvents that have seeped into homes.

Karl Ebert, Carol Krauze, and Jackie Milbrandt sued General Mills Inc. in Federal Court, alleging it released trichloroethylene - a chemical historically used to extract vegetable oils from plant materials - into the area around its former facility in Minneapolis.

The plaintiffs say the carcinogenic chemical vapors threaten home and business owners in the city's Como neighborhood, a historically industrial, but now primarily residential, area.

As outlined by U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, the plaintiffs allege General Mills disposed of about 15,000 gallons of certain solvents into groundwater near its facility from 1947 to 1962, basing their assessment on an engineering map of the contaminated area, as well as several state agency documents.

Scientific data shows that General Mills' disposal of "large quantities of toxic chemicals, including [trichloroethylene] TCE, at the facility, has resulted in widespread soil vapor contamination," according to the plaintiffs' expert, Dr. Lorne Everett.

But General Mills argues that the groundwater and air contamination came from several other nearby facilities' likely use of hazardous solvents, as well as household products.

Years after General Mills investigated the soil and groundwater around its facility, it agreed in 1984 to remediate the groundwater, via such methods as a pump-and-treat system.

That system was shut down in 2010, however, and three years later, trichloroethylene vapors were still found in the area surrounding the facility.

General Mills then installed vapor mitigation systems in 118 homes - including those of the plaintiffs - near which trichloroethylene soil vapors are above 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

The firm says soil vapor testing shows that 327 homes in Como lack detectable trichloroethylene concentrations, and the mitigation systems are "highly protective" for residents.

But the plaintiffs claim that vapors still permeate their neighborhood.

Their complaint asserts violations of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; common law negligence; private nuisance; and willful and wanton misconduct.

The plaintiffs also asked to certify a class of at least 200 property-owners, and determine whether injunctive relief is warranted to compel comprehensive remediation.

Last week, Judge Frank did just that.

In doing so, Frank also denied the defendant's motions to exclude expert testimony.

The judge tossed aside General Mills' claim that the plaintiffs' proposed geographical boundaries for class members fail to consider upgradient sources of trichloroethylene.

"The issues flagged by defendant are issues to be determined after the class is certified," Frank wrote. "First, the questions of whether upgradient sources contributed to the presence of [trichloroethylene] TCE, and in what amount, do not impact class certification. Plaintiffs present sufficient preliminary evidence that [General Mills Inc.] GMI was at least a cause of the TCE groundwater plume as identified, if not a substantial cause."

The judge later added: "Plaintiffs present preliminary evidence in the form of expert testimony and a number of other documents reflecting the basis for the proposed geographic boundaries. The boundaries create a list of specific and identifiable potential class members. Thus, defendant's concerns really relate to how many class members have valid claims and not the class's ascertainability; the number of class members with valid claims is an issue to be determined after the class is certified."

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