Verdict for Pomona groundwater contamination upheld

Nov. 1, 2023
The Federal Court of Appeals upheld a verdict in favor of the City of Pomona, requiring SQM North American Corporation to pay Pomona more than $30.62 million.

The City of Pomona, California’s case against SQM North American Corporation regarding groundwater contamination has officially concluded after 13 years of litigation.

SQM is paying the city more than $30.62 million to cover Pomona’s costs incurred by groundwater contamination — allegedly caused by SQM’s defective fertilizer products.

The 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, together with certain costs awarded by the court, and interested.

SQM made the payment after the Federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a May 2023 decision, upheld a September 2021 jury verdict in favor of the city. The jury found that defective perchlorate-tainted fertilizer 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 specialized water treatment plant costing tens of millions of dollars to construct and operate.

Perchlorate is a toxic chemical that can be particularly 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.

In 2010, the city retained SL Environmental Law Group (SL) and filed a products liability lawsuit against SQM seeking $30.2 million 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 fertilizer was made could have removed the perchlorate from the fertilizer.

After fighting through multiple appeals and trials, the city convinced the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena that the evidence supported the city’s claim and $30.2 million in damages.

Ken Sansone, partner at SL Environment Law Group who led the City’s efforts at trial and on appeal said, “The City of 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.”

Read more about how water systems can discover liable polluters in this WaterWorld article.