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Hillsboro joins lawsuit over herbicide

Staff writer

Hillsboro will join a class-action lawsuit against a herbicide manufacturer over contamination of drinking water supplies.

Syngenta of Switzerland makes atrazine, a herbicide used against broadleaf weeds in corn and soybean fields, Hillsboro City Administrator Larry Paine said. Hillsboro City Council made the decision March 17.

Potential effects of atrazine exposure include cancers of the prostate, breast, ovaries, and stomach, according to a presentation by Baron & Budd.

Paine learned of the lawsuit when Marion City Administrator David Mayfield contacted him and told him Marion had been asked to join a lawsuit because of contamination in Marion Reservoir. Hillsboro and Marion get their water supplies from the reservoir.

Legal firm Baron & Budd of Dallas is litigating the class-action suit in Illinois. The intent of the lawsuit is to obtain funds to allow the plaintiffs to better remove atrazine from water supplies, Paine said.

The lawsuit is not intended to stop the use of atrazine, nor is it against farmers and distributors who use the product as directed, Paine added.

Hillsboro and Marion have detectable levels of atrazine in drinking water, Paine said. Tests have found between 0.54 and 1.2 parts-per-billion (ppb) in Hillsboro’s water supply since 1995. Atrazine levels in Marion’s drinking water have been between 0.37 and 1.1 in that same time.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a maximum contamination level for atrazine of 3.0 ppb.

For its part, Baron & Budd will be paid 33 percent of any settlement, plus expenses, Paine said.

Hillsboro and Marion city councils met March 12 to discuss the matter in closed session with Dan Baldwin, city attorney of both cities.

On March 17, Hillsboro City Council again met with Baldwin in closed session. On return to open session, council members Shane Marler and Shelby Dirks voted in favor of joining the lawsuit, Bob Watson and Byron McCarty voted against, and Mayor Delores Dalke broke the tie in favor of joining.

“The bottom line is the lawsuit will happen with or without Hillsboro,” Dirks said. The city can benefit by participating, and there is no risk to joining it.

Marler said he prefers to err on the side of caution, and the potential to cause cancer is reason enough to join the class-action lawsuit.

Watson and McCarty said they want Hillsboro to have safe drinking water, but they weren’t convinced the lawsuit was the best approach.

“I didn’t think the city council really understood the problem,” Watson said.

All the information the city received came from a law firm that stands to gain from the lawsuit, he said. He would have been more comfortable if the city had information from the EPA, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Kansas State University, or the University of Kansas about dangers of atrazine.

Additionally, tests show the city’s water supply is within the safe range as determined by the EPA.

McCarty said he thinks the lawyers stand to make a lot of money and don’t have the well-being of cities in mind.

“I think it’s a health issue,” Dalke said.

Now the council will wait while Baron & Budd seeks more communities for the lawsuit, Paine said. Eventually water testing and data collection will be needed, but the city will wait to see.

Last modified March 25, 2009

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