Kansas farming communities targeted by trial attorneys for atrazine lawsuit
News that two Kansas agricultural communities have signed on as participants in a class action lawsuit against the maker of the farm herbicide atrazine came as both a surprise and a disappointment to the Kansas Corn Growers Association and the Kansas Grain Sorghum Producers Association. The cities of Hillsboro and Marion were selected by a group of Texas trial lawyers seeking drinking water systems to sign on to their case.
Jere White, executive director of KCGA and KGSPA has been involved with atrazine issues on a national level since 1995 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began a Special Review of the triazine herbicides including atrazine.
"What concerns me is that these city councils only heard one-sided information provided by the Texas law firm of Baron and Budd, which will reportedly collect a third of any winnings of the lawsuit," White said. "Why not also get information from experts that don't have a monetary interest, like Kansas Department of Health and Environment or EPA?"
In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency gave a favorable risk assessment to the triazine herbicides including atrazine concluding that they pose no harm that would result to the general U.S. population, infants, children or other consumers.
After the EPA's positive science-based findings on atrazine, activists have turned to the legal system in hopes of finding another way to ban the herbicide, White said.
"When we became involved in the Special Review of atrazine, we simply wanted EPA to make a decision on scientific fact regardless of the outcome," he said. "Now the debate has moved into the legal arena, where fear and misinformation can sometimes carry more weight than proven scientific fact. EPA assembled numerous expert science panels to review and advisee the agency in its decision. Their science is sound."
Media reports state that the city officials were told their communities had nothing to lose by getting involved in the lawsuit.
"From reading the news reports, it appears the councils had been convinced that no one loses in this lawsuit except for a big foreign-owned chemical company. That could not be further from the truth. Farmers rely on atrazine for safe and economical weed control, and lawsuits like this threaten their ability to buy and use this product. Any costs incurred with this lawsuit will be borne by farmers, regardless of the outcome," White said. "The Texas trial attorneys made it sound like the lottery--but the jackpot will go to Baron and Budd."
Water testing shows that both communities fall well below the 3 parts per billion standard for atrazine in drinking water. This Federal standard is an annual average based on lifetime exposure. However, Hillsboro city manager Larry Paine was quoted in news stories saying that even lower levels of atrazine are a concern to public health, claiming that lower levels seem to be more dangerous to higher levels.
"I have personally been involved in the EPA Special Review and Reregistration of atrazine since 1995. I have heard a lot of wild claims, but I have never heard anything like that," White said. "EPA performed a science-based review of atrazine that spanned well over a decade and concluded that atrazine does not pose a risk even at levels three times higher than those reported at Hillsboro."
Communities and their water systems also have a stake in making sure that water standards are science-based.
"It is in the best interest of water systems and to public safety to have standards that are set by science-based methods, rather than litigation," White said. "Water systems themselves add chemicals to the water to make it safe to drink. Those water disinfectants create contaminants, yet within the standards, they are considered safe. If science-based standards are not protective in the eyes of Hillsboro and Marion city leaders, how can they expect their constituents to accept their assurance that their drinking water is safe? Water consumed by their citizens will always contain more than hydrogen and oxygen."
Cities should be wary of trial lawyer's tactics and seek information from a neutral party, like KDHE or EPA. "There are volumes of peer reviewed science available on atrazine that were generated throughout EPA's Special Review of the triazine herbicides, which include atrazine," White said. "Our growers have worked for years to make sure that we are using atrazine responsibly on our fields. We have funded research at K-State to establish and implement practices to keep atrazine from running off our fields into rivers and streams. Now we have trial attorneys from Texas coming to our rural Kansas towns and apparently feeding them a lot of misinformation to get them to sign on to their lawsuit. Cities and other water systems in Kansas should use diligence if approached by trial attorneys on any issue, including this one."