Let's hope atrazine lawsuits go away faster than asbestos

Ed Murnane Apr. 18, 2010, 5:37am

While the Madison County asbestos meter continues to spin like some kind of hyper-active Las Vegas slot machine, there is a chance another one of the trial lawyer "get richer quicker" schemes from the "A" file may be handed a "get out of our court" card, which is similar to a "get out of jail free" card from Monopoly but much more significant.

Last Wednesday, Madison County Judge Barbara Crowder was scheduled to hear motions to dismiss several lawsuits against manufacturers and a retailer of atrazine, the second most important herbicide in Illinois.

Illinois, if you have forgotten, is a state that depends heavily on corn and other crop production for its economic vitality. Look out the car window in a few weeks and you'll start to see the miracle of Illinois crops breaking ground. Given the current state of the economy, it's a shame crops can't grow year-round, and in highway medians too. And maybe in the chambers of the Illinois General Assembly.

There are several aspects of major significance to the proceedings in Madison County.

First, it will be among the early major rulings by Judge Crowder who is taking over the docket of retiring Judge Daniel Stack. Stack has handled the massive asbestos docket in Madison County and while popular, respected and likeable, the number of asbestos cases filed in Madison County continues to grow and a sign that atrazine cases are being encouraged to follow along the "welcome" path would not be positive.

Second, the ruling could serve as another sign that the good old boys club continues to thrive in Madison County. While not based in Madison County, plaintiff's attorney Stephen Tillery of St. Louis is one of many Southwestern Illinois/Eastern Missouri lawyers who has struck it rich in Madison County and who is a major player in the atrazine litigation.

Six suits against atrazine manufacturers and a retailer, Illinois-based Growmark, were filed five years ago in Madison County, recognized nationally as one of America's "judicial hellholes," primarily because it welcomes out-of-state plaintiffs' attorneys seeking cash bonanzas.

Last month, the same lawyers hedged their bets, filing a federal class action suit for 17 plaintiffs from six Midwestern states in the Southern District of Illinois. The plaintiffs in both suits are local water boards.

Among the lawyers are Baron and Budd – billionaire attorneys from Texas – and Tillery, their local representative.

The trial lawyers are likely to say the lawsuits aim at far-off companies unjustly enriched in Illinois. The truth is their immediate victims will be Illinois corn growers.

Atrazine is no ordinary herbicide. EPA says it brings $28 of value to every acre, in 2003 dollars. By that estimate, it is worth more than $200 million per year to Illinois corn growers and its annual national value is no less than $2 billion, again in 2003 dollars.

Losing that much would hurt all corn growers; it could devastate those who are struggling. In these tough times, it could put them out of business and their families out of their homes.

The lawsuits say runoff makes drinking water unsafe. But atrazine, the most studied agricultural input in history, is found to be safe around the world, in Britain, Canada, Australia, by the World Health Organization and our own U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency.

It has been approved for use in the United States for over 50 years. Currently used in 60 countries, it has never been banned due to health concerns. The EPA, in 2006, after a 12-year review that included more than 6000 scientific studies, found atrazine poses no harm to infants or the general population when used as directed.

Trace amounts found in a few handfuls of water systems are so tiny – literally measured in parts per billion – and EPA safety margins are so large, that an average adult could drink thousands of gallons every day for 70 years and still not reach an exposure level at which any health effects have been detected.

In other words, there is no safety issue.

So, why are they suing? Why do many – most? – plaintiff attorneys sue? Why are dozens of asbestos suits filed in Madison County each month?

Public documents show one of the plaintiffs plans a new $4.5 million filtration system. It is no coincidence that the suits demand new, high-end, state-of-the-art filtering systems.

And of course the plaintiffs' attorneys will receive cash for their clients if they win. Big piles of cash. Silos full of cash.

Farming -- and corn growing especially -- is basic to Illinois. Cash-strapped water districts seeking new sources of funding is not a surprise, but neither are out-of-state attorneys trying to cash in.

But we need to remember that their bonanzas are not free to our farmers – or to us.

If atrazine's value is wiped out, jobs will be lost and Illinois farmers will produce less corn. That means less revenue, and that will hurt the economies of our rural communities and ultimately our state economy that already faces so many challenges.

The list of participants in this Edwardsville drama should be a sufficient warning sign – but the scientific evidence and the potential consequences to one of the major industries in our financially-stressed state should be the clincher.

Two of the defendant manufacturers – Syngenta Crop Protection Inc. and United Agri-Products -- have asked for dismissal, and that's what's at issue in Judge Crowder's court.

Hopefully, this file will be closed soon.

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