Policy

D.C. sues chemical company for allegedly contaminating local rivers with pesticide

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine speaks during a news conference in Washington, on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. The District of Columbia filed a lawsuit Thursday against Velsicol, claiming it violated the city's environmental laws by polluting a major waterway, the Anacostia River, and its surrounding environment for decades. (AP Photo/Drew Costley)

Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine (D) on Thursday announced a lawsuit against chemical manufacturer Velsicol, alleging the company contaminated waterways in the city and harmed the health of residents in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

The complaint alleged that no later than 1959, Velsicol was given private lab studies indicating that a chemical called chlordane, included in a pesticide compound the company manufactured, caused birth defects in animals, and by the early 70s knew that tests linked it to liver cancer.

The lawsuit argues that despite this internal knowledge, Velsicol conducted an aggressive campaign to assuage concerns about the chemical’s safety, including threatening to sue the publisher of “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book on the environmental impact of pesticides.

The Hill has reached out to Velsicol for comment.

The company viewed D.C. as a major market due to termite infestations and placed hundreds of ads in local newspapers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the suit alleged. Research in the late 1980s indicated the Potomac and Anacostia rivers contained triple the amount of chlordane recommended for human consumption, and in 1989 these levels prompted the city to warn against eating carp, catfish or eel caught in the river.

Chlordane’s persistence in the environment has led its effects to linger for years, and as recently as 2016, about 55 percent of D.C. waterways were “impaired” under water quality standards for chlordane levels, according to the complaint. Racine’s office estimated chlordane monitoring will cost the city about $1.2 million annually “for the foreseeable future.”

Velsicol has previously been the subject of lawsuits from Hardeman County, Tenn., residents, who alleged in 1978 that the company contaminated local waterways through improper disposal methods. A district court awarded the plaintiffs over $12 million in damages.

“With today’s lawsuit, we are going after Velsicol which – for decades – made dollar after dollar of profit while poisoning DC residents with dangerous chemicals that they knew caused severe health problems, including cancer,” Racine said in a statement. “The damage that Velsicol caused will continue to impact the health of communities in the District of Columbia far into the future, particularly Black and brown community members, as these chemicals persist in our environment and continue to wreak havoc on our natural resources.”

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