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City gives copies of atrazine lawsuit info to ag groups

Complaint still pending

Managing editor

In response to an open meetings and record complaint last week, the cities of Marion and Hillsboro have forwarded copies of documents to the Kansas Corn Growers and Kansas Grain Sorghum producers Associations supplied by a law firm asking them to join a groundwater contamination lawsuit against the manufacturer of the widely used agricultural herbicide atrazine.

The associations complained last week that they had asked for but not received the documents, which allege health dangers associated with atrazine and which, the associations say, were reviewed by the two city councils in a join closed session before both cities agreed to join the lawsuit.

Initially the associations contended, Hillsboro City Administrator Larry Paine told the association were reviewed in executive session and were protected by attorney-client privilege. The City of Marion denied the existence of any documents.

City administrator David Mayfield clarified that no copies were offered to the press, he only asked if there was “anything else” the press needed.

The City of Hillsboro had earlier supplied the Hillsboro Star-Journal with copies of a PowerPoint presentation that contains the allegations.

Dan Baldwin, city attorney for both Marion and Hillsboro, could not be reached for comment when growers association complaint came to light last Tuesday. The next day, he said he intended to send the copies of the requested documents.

“The request was not only an open records request,” Baldwin said. “It also involved the fact that both cities have signed contracts with a law firm. We also had to comply with our attorneys’ confidentiality rules.”

County attorney Susan Robson, to whom the complaint was sent, was unavailable for comment Tuesday on whether the release of the documents resolved that portion of the complaint that dealt with open records. The complaint also alleged that the joint closed meeting was illegal because the presence of a third party in a closed meeting eliminates attorney-client privilege. At the time, Marion was not a party to the suit.

The associations’ executive director Jere White also requested and did not receive a response to his request for a copy of a contract between the City of Hillsboro and the law firms, Baron & Budd P.C. and Korein Tillery of Dallas. White confirmed in an interview last week that he had received a copy of an unsigned agreement between the Dallas attorneys and the City of Marion. The Marion County Record also asked for and received a copy. The Record and the Star-Journal both are owned by Hoch Publishing.

According to the copy, the contract calls for the law firms to receive one-third of any settlement reached before trial or one-half of any settlement or judgment received after the trial begins.

The cities have indicated that the primary reason for their joining the lawsuit is to recover the cost of removal of atrazine from the cities’ water supplies. Officials have emphasized that both cities’ water is safe. While also noted that the concentration of atrazine in municipal water in both cities is below safety limits established by federal and state health authorities.

In a statement released last week at the request of the Record, Baron & Budd, P.C. and Korein Tillery accused the growers associations of making their allegations “in what we believe is an effort to protect the financial interests of a European based company, Syngenta,” which makes a large share of the atrazine sold in the U.S. The company has its headquarters in Switzerland.

“This foreign corporation profits from the sale of a chemical that contaminates water systems and avoids financial responsibilities for the pollution it creates,” the law firms stated in their statement. “The result is that the drinking water in more than 300 water systems in Kansas, and hundreds more throughout the Midwest, is contaminated with atrazine.”

The law firms contend that Syngenta has focused sales efforts on the U.S. because atrazine has been banned in the European Union since 2005.

“Farmers have done nothing wrong,” the law firms said. “Kansas farmers, like farmers throughout the Midwest, applied atrazine according to the label instructions. Unfortunately, atrazine degrades slowly and in many instances contaminates public drinking water.

“Federal law mandates filtration to bring atrazine to certain levels that can create a financial burden on cities. As a result, Syngenta should pay to eliminate atrazine from Kansas waters — not Kansas taxpayers.”

The law firms praised the response of the cities of Marion and Hillsboro to the growers associations’ complaint.

“The cities of Marion and Hillsboro have acted responsibly by investigating this matter and insuring that its taxpayers are protected from the results of Syngenta’s product …” the statement said. “The cities of Marion and Hillsboro have and will continue to comply with all applicable laws including the Kansas Open Records Act and the Kansas Open Meetings Act. The citizens of both Hillsboro and Marion should applaud the decisions of these cities for choosing to protect both their taxpayers and Kansas drinking water over the financial interests of the foreign company Syngenta.”

Last modified April 23, 2009

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