Case closed: Pomona city, US awarded US$30m in water contamination case   

After 13 years of litigation, proceedings in the city of Pomona’s case against mining company SQM North America corporation seeking to recover for the costs of groundwater contamination caused by SQM defective fertiliser products have officially concluded, with SQM’s $30.6m in payment to the city.

This payment represents the city’s full costs, both those already incurred and those expected to be over the next 30 years, for treating perchlorate in its drinking water supplies. SQM made the payment after the federal court of appeals for the 9th circuit, in a May 2023 decision, upheld a September 2021 jury verdict in favour of the city. The jury found that defective perchlorate-tainted fertiliser sold by SQM — a subsidiary of multinational mining company Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile — for use in the city’s former citrus orchards had contaminated its drinking water wells with perchlorate, necessitating a specialised water treatment plant costing millions of dollars to construct and operate.

Perchlorate is a toxic chemical that can be harmful to children as it disrupts hormones needed for healthy growth and development. As a result, it is banned from drinking water supplies in California except at very low levels, and is also the subject of a pending nationwide drinking water standard under consideration by the Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). In 2010, the city retained SL Environmental law group (SL) and filed a products liability lawsuit against SQM seeking $30.2m to recover past and future costs associated with investigating and remediating perchlorate contamination.

SL attorneys argued that SQM should take responsibility for the cost of the contamination cleanup caused by its defective products, as manufacturing methods available at the time the fertiliser was made could have removed the perchlorate from the fertiliser. After fighting through appeals and trials, the city convinced the court in Pasadena, California, that the evidence supported the city’s claim and $30.2m in damages. 

Ken Sansone, SL partner who led the city’s efforts at trial and on appeal said, “Pomona never gave up, and neither did our team of lawyers. I commend the resilience and tenacity of everyone involved in this fight to ensure that the polluters, not the taxpayers of Pomona, are held accountable for remediating perchlorate contamination.”

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