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Atrazine’s Day in Court

March 25, 2010

In January, The Minnesota Project reported on the special registration review of the ubiquitous herbicide atrazine by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and the agency’s subsequent affirmation of the product’s safety. To wit, the MDA found, in its review, enough potential hazards associated with widespread atrazine use to raise some concerns about human and ecological health, but not enough to restrict application of one of the most widely used herbicide in the country. The MDA requested comments from the public on the review process and re-registration of atrazine, and The Minnesota Project responded with a letter laying out our concerns with atrazine use, and some recommendations for alternatives to the chemical.

Since submitting our letter to the MDA, on March 10, some new developments in the atrazine story have come to light. A five-year-old lawsuit against manufacturers of the chemical—which has languished in something akin to legal purgatory, as judges punted the suit from Illinois circuit court to federal court and back again—has gained momentum over the past few weeks. What began in 2004 as a single-claimant lawsuit in Illinois’s Third Judicial Circuit between Holiday Shores Sanitary District and the five primary manufacturers of atrazine has broadened in scope to include seven municipalities and their water systems as plaintiffs, and six agrichemical companies as defendants.

On March 8, the lead attorney for Holiday Shores, Stephen Tillery, filed another suit against the largest manufacturer of atrazine, this one a class action suit in federal court. In the federal case, Tillery is representing 16 water systems from six different Midwest states: Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, and Iowa. The claimants are seeking $5 million from the Swiss company Syngenta AG and its American subsidiary, Syngenta Crop Protection, to aid in removing atrazine from their public water supplies and retrofitting their water systems’ treatment plants with carbon filters. In both cases, the plaintiffs seek to set a precedent that will allow lawsuits to be brought against atrazine manufacturers even if concentration of the chemical in public water sources does not exceed the federal benchmark for safety. This would be a huge blow to Syngenta, which has indicated, through its lead attorney in the federal case, that it was not open to an out-of-court settlement, and would pursue the case until a decision is reached.

For an in-depth look into the case against atrazine and its manufacturers, check out this piece by the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.

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