Two and a Half Cheers: Local Water Utilities Win Atrazine Legal Battle
After nearly eight years of litigation, Syngenta, the maker of atrazine, the most widely used weed killer in the world, has settled a lawsuit filed by water utilities in a half-dozen Midwestern states.
The utilities’ beef? They were paying tens of thousands of dollars a year to remove the chemical from drinking water. Regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, atrazine has been linked with low birth weight, birth defects, and other reproductive problems when consumed at levels below the federal standard. The EPA is currently reviewing atrazine’s safety: read NRDC’s take on the contaminant here and Andrew Wetzler’s (of the Land and Wildlife Program) take on the legal decision here.
If approved by a federal judge in southern Illinois, the settlement will disburse $105 million — minus attorneys’ fees — to nearly 1,900 utilities: the exact amount for each utility will be based on its past atrazine levels, the frequency of contamination, and the population served with drinking water. Syngenta admits no liability in the case and will continue to sell its product in the U.S. (The European Union has banned its use.)
The settlement, which generated 10 million pages of documents, will help utilities cover their past expenses — a significant portion of the budgets of small utilities in agricultural areas where atrazine is in heavy use. (Utilities remove atrazine by adding to their water either powdered carbon or granulated activated carbon, which absorbs the chemical and is then removed through filtration or sedimentation.)
But if farmers continue to use the herbicide, which runs off fields and contaminates both groundwater and surface water, utilities will be stuck paying to remove it long into the future. Sure, the utilities won a rhetorical point — polluter pays — but the biggest winners here are the attorneys representing the utilities. Their cut of the deal: $34.9 million.
Image: Atrazine concentration in the U.S. water supply, via U.S. Geological Survey
This post first appeared at OnEarth.org