Closing Arguments Made in City’s ‘Poisoned’ Groundwater Trial

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Attorneys made their closing arguments Wednesday in a case where the city of Pomona claims that a subsidiary of a Chilean chemical company “poisoned” its groundwater over the course of decades, costing millions in cleanup costs.

Fertilizer used on citrus orchards in 1930s southern California is at the center of the city’s multimillion-dollar lawsuit against a chemical company who imported its product from Chile.

The city of Pomona, approximately 30 miles east of Los Angeles, seeks $30 million in damages from the North American subsidiary of SQM, a Chilean chemical company.

In its lawsuit, Pomona said perchlorate salt contaminants have seeped into the groundwater after several decades. Now the city’s water treatment facilities remove those contaminants, which it says can be traced back to the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Perchlorate is often used as propellants in rocket fuel. If consumed in large amounts, the chemical can cause hyperthyroidism in humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The city’s expert witness, geochemist Neil Sturchio from the University of Delaware, said contaminants found in Pomona match samples taken from the Chilean desert.

Defendant’s attorney Bob Smith, with San Diego-based Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, dismissed Sturchio’s findings, calling his testimony unimportant, because the data could not accurately say when the contaminants were introduced into the groundwater.

Chile’s arid desert is home to one of the largest nitrate deposits in the world. SQM’s attorneys argued that perchlorates from Chile could have come from several other mining facilities.

Pomona’s attorney Kenneth Sansone, with San Francisco-based SL Environmental Law Group, said SQM has not taken responsibility for its defective product. Manufacturing methods used in the 20th century could have removed those contaminants, Sansone argued.

The city claims almost 19 tons were brought to southern California over a 6-year period starting in the 1930s.

Plaintiff’s attorneys also referred to SQM’s ads from the 1930s that talked up sodium nitrate’s use with citrus orchards, but Smith said that was negligible.

“An ad is not a historic document,” Smith said during closing arguments.

SQM has denied its product from the 1930s was used in Pomona’s orchards. Defendant’s attorneys called the city’s claims far-fetched and presented the jury water flow charts and aerial maps of the basin to illustrate that the contaminants could be from other sources. They also said strict rationing of nitrate would have diverted supplies from agriculture into the manufacturing of munitions during World War II.

Smith added the manufacturing practices in the 1930s could not have accounted for future standards and his client should not be held accountable for that. Perchlorate only became recognized by California as a contaminant in 2006. It is unknown when the jury is expected to rule.

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