By Clare Howard
EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – Now in its eighth year of litigation, a lawsuit playing out in small, rural Madison County Circuit Court in Southern Illinois could set a costly, possibly game-changing, precedent for chemical manufacturers: agrichemical giants whose products spread beyond their initial targets could be responsible for the price of cleanup.
Some 22 water providers in Illinois are suing Syngenta Crop Protection Inc., a subsidiary of Swiss-based Syngenta AG. They are demanding that the cost of removing atrazine from drinking water, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, be shifted from the water providers and the public to Syngenta.
As the lawsuit unfolds, it is also parting the curtain on aggressive tactics the agrichemical industry has used to seemingly harass and intimidate scientists, and to manipulate information available to the public.
Syngenta AG had global annual sales of $11.6 billion in 2010, and maintains that agricultural chemicals are not dangerous if applied within government-approved safety guidelines.
Its weed killer atrazine is one of the most popular herbicides in the United States, with 76 million pounds applied each year. But the herbicide’s tendency to drift off targeted sites led to a ban by Germany in 1991, and following a 2004 vote, by the 27 member countries of the European Union.
Syngenta’s attorney on the case, Kurt Reeg, declined to comment for this story.
A videotaped deposition of University of Chicago Professor Don Coursey, played in court, demonstrated Syngenta’s use of seemingly independent experts to make its case, typically without disclosing payments to them. Their work downplays the risks of pesticides, herbicides and other agricultural agents to human health, and warns of grave economic consequences if farmers ceased using the chemicals.
Syngenta had hired Coursey through PR agency Jayne Thompson & Associates to write about the economic losses that would be created by an atrazine ban. He estimated that an atrazine ban would eliminate 21,000 to 48,000 jobs and create an economic loss for U.S. corn production of $2.3 to $5 billion.
Over the course of questioning, however, Stephen Tillery, the lawyer who is representing the water companies, raised doubts about the validity of those assumptions and the integrity of the analysis.
Coursey admitted his reports were based on an atrazine ban, something not sought in Tillery’s lawsuit. He also admitted he had not read the legal complaint and was ordered by Syngenta and the PR agency to analyze the cost of an atrazine ban.
For his expert opinion, Coursey was able to supplement his university salary handsomely. In his deposition, Coursey said that Syngenta’s PR firm paid him $500 an hour and gave him $50 an hour for a research assistant over three to four years. His reports relied on data supplied by Syngenta, he said, adding that he had an office at the public relations firm. He submitted his work to both Jayne Thompson and Syngenta for editing.
Coursey said the PR agency also paid him $500 an hour to meet with newspaper editors and radio talk show hosts, and to make a presentation to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Just the same, Syngenta initially refused to honor a subpoena for Coursey to testify in the trial or turn over documents, and relented only after judicial intervention.
Coursey did not respond to requests for an interview.
In a memo released in April as part of the discovery process, the PR firm proposed planting stories with newspapers critical of the Madison County courts and suggesting the lawsuit could be characterized as an attack on family farmers. The memo suggested castigating the Madison County judicial system as a “judicial hellhole” and the source of “jackpot justice.”
As the hearing continued, Tillery told the judge that realtors in some areas served by the plaintiffs had been informed property values would decline if this lawsuit proceeds.
In a companion lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, Judge J. Phil Gilbert rejected the notion that Swiss-based Syngenta AG is outside the jurisdiction of this lawsuit. In late November, he ordered the parent company to defend its actions in this suit, marking the first time the international corporation has been subject to U.S. jurisdiction.
Clare Howard is a freelance reporter and member of 100Reporters. This series of articles was made possible through a George Polk Investigative Reporting grant funded by the Ford Foundation.