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Pesticide Velsicol Chemical polluted DC rivers for decades, lawsuits say

DC Attorney General Karl A. Racine announced a lawsuit against a chemical manufacturer Thursday, alleging his pesticide had contaminated the Potomac and Anacostia rivers for decades with chemicals he knew were linked to cancer.

Accompanied by environmentalists and local NAACP representatives, Racine (D) told a news conference that the effects of suspected Velsicol Chemical contamination were hitting “low-income black and brown residents” particularly hard, in a case that connects environmental and racial justice.

“The history of our country is such that whenever there is garbage to dispose of or things that could hurt people, they have always gone where people had less power,” Racine said. “And, yes, that means black and brown communities.”

As of 1945, Illinois-based Velsicol was the only manufacturer of chlordane as a pesticide to kill insects, Racine said. Although the company was aware that the product could cause cancer in 1959, he alleged, Velsicol opted for a campaign of “misinformation and deception” and continued to sell the product until 1988.

Monsanto will pay $52 million to clean up contamination in the Potomac and other regional waterways

The lawsuit says studies have linked long-term chlordane exposure to liver cancer, as well as miscarriages, depression and bone marrow disease. Shorter-term exposure, he says, has been linked to blurred vision, headaches, tremors and insomnia, among other central nervous system symptoms.

Chlordane accumulates “over time in fish, birds, and mammals, and is found in food, air, water, soil, and sediment,” the lawsuit says, and residents of DC “are then exposed to chlordane by eating contaminated food such as marine life, breathing contaminated air, or drinking contaminated water.

Racine alleged that the health effects of the chemical continue in the area.

“That’s how dangerous chemicals work: they don’t just go away if you put water on them,” he said. “They keep working on people and keep making them sick.”

DC Attorney General Karl Racine will not seek elected office in 2022

Velsicol representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

A 2016 analysis of the district’s 38 miles of rivers and streams found 20 miles to be “failed to meet water quality standards for chlordane”. The lawsuit highlighted Poplar Point on Anacostia as a particularly hot area of ​​contamination.

According to the lawsuit, by the time chlordane was federally banned in 1988, “approximately 30 million homes and structures in the United States” had been treated with it.

Velsicol has already been sued in the region for the environmental impact of its products. In 2008, the company settled with the state of Maryland, which had filed a lawsuit for alleged violation of state water pollution and hazardous substances laws. Velsicol then agreed to pay $200,000 and investigate and clean up its contaminated facility in Chestertown.

Since Racine won the 2014 election as the district’s first elected attorney general, his office has recouped more than $60 million in pollution and environmental cases. This figure includes $52 million recovered from agricultural products company Monsanto and $2.5 million from GenOn Holdings, both in 2020, for adverse environmental effects in the nation’s capital.

The Monsanto case revolved around weedkiller manufacturer Roundup’s sale and use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in DC between the 1920s and the late 1970s. The city lawsuit alleged that at least 36 waterways in Washington were contaminated with high levels of PCBs, including the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

Pollution caused 1 in 6 deaths worldwide over five years, study finds

That same year, Racine’s office settled with GenOn over a now closed coal-fired power plant in Alexandria.

Racine, who is not running for re-election next month, on Thursday linked his office’s work on environmental issues to important national racial justice cases.

“Think Flint, Michigan, or Jackson, Mississippi,” he said. “Who was injured there?

This story has been updated with more details and context from the lawsuit.

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