Officials stay quiet on proposed Syngenta settlement

Bethany Krajelis Jul. 26, 2012, 8:17am


Although plaintiffs in a Madison County class action lawsuit that led to federal litigation over the weed killer atrazine will be included in the $105 million proposed settlement, it appears they don't want to talk about it - or at least not yet.

A message left this week for Richard Hayes, president of Holiday Shores Sanitary District, at the district's office was returned by an employee, who referred media questions to Korein Tillery, the law firm that filed the class action lawsuit against Syngenta Crop Protection and Syngenta AG on the sanitary district's behalf in Madison County in 2004.

A message left at Hayes' home, as well as at the law office of the district's attorney, Bob Perica, went unreturned. And the same goes for messages left this week for officials for some of the plaintiff municipalities involved in the federal lawsuit, including the Village of Coulterville and the City of Gillespie.

David Willey, the city manager for the City of Greenville, the lead plaintiff in the federal suit, returned a message left for the city's attorney, Patrick Schuafelberger, and declined comment on behalf of the city, noting the pending nature of the settlement.

These messages sought comment from the officials of the plaintiff municipalities as to their involvement and impression of the proposed settlement, as well as how it would directly impact their village or city.

In addition, a message left Wednesday with Stephen Tillery's secretary seeking comment from the attorney who spearheaded the lawsuits was not immediately returned.

In 2004, Tillery filed six separate class action suits in Madison County Circuit Court against various manufacturers of atrazine, a commonly used agricultural herbicide. The plaintiffs claimed that atrazine ran off farm field and into their drinking water supplies.

Six years later, Tillery filed a class action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the City of Greenville and several other water providers in six Midwestern states. In May, the Syngenta defendants agreed to pay $105 million to settle the suit.

If approved, the proposed settlement would resolve all pending litigation over these claims, including matters in Madison County that include other companies besides Syngenta, such as Dow AgroSciences and Drexel, according to a transcript of the May 30 hearing on a motion for preliminary approval of the settlement.

Tillery said during the May hearing that the proposed settlement provides community water systems the chance to test their water systems for atrazine and if appropriate, file claims up until late August.

If approved, claimants would receive a fixed payment of $5,000 to help cover the cost of testing for atrazine (two tests per year at $250 each for 10 years) and a pro-rata share of the remaining balance of the settlement fund.

The proposed settlement also provides plaintiff attorneys about $34.9 million in fees to share.

Tillery and Michael Pope, the attorney representing the Syngenta defendants, said at the May hearing that the settlement will resolve the claims of more than 1,800 water providers.

Tillery also noted that a formula will be used to determine exactly how much each claimant will receive under the settlement.

If the settlement is approved, Tillery said in May that 157 claimants would get between $20,000 and $50,000, 96 would receive between $50,000 and $100,000, 151 would be eligible for between $100,000 and $500,000, 14 systems would get $500,000 and one system would receive $1 million.

According to the Holiday Shores Sanitary District's website, which provides minutes of its board meetings, trustees went into closed executive session in May to discuss updates of litigation. They also went into a closed session in June to discuss employee salary review and litigation, which is allowed under provisions of the state's Open Meeting Act.

The minutes of the June meeting, however, did make one mention to Syngenta. During a discussion on possible decreases in expenses for the district's 2012-2013 budget, officials noted that "since the sale of the water plant and the Syngenta settlement are uncertain for this fiscal period, a budget amendment will be considered at the time they occur."

Jim McCann, president of the Holiday Shores Association, said he wasn't surprised by the lack of response to media calls on the Syngenta settlement. His association is not included in the litigation.

He said the board discussed it in 2004 and 2005 after Tillery inquired about whether it would like to be a party to the suit and decided not to do so.

McCann said the sanitary district does not keep the board updated on the litigation, but emphasized that the board has not asked for it do so either. He said he follows the proposed settlement through media reports.

As someone who has been drinking water provided by the district for about two decades, McCann said he does not have any concerns over the safety of the water. When the litigation first began, he said he was worried over negative publicity that might be created by the fact the association and district share a similar name.

On the bright side, McCann said the litigation hasn't created a mass exodus of residents, inquiries from potential residents or fears over the safety of the drinking water.

"Our water is really good," he said. "It's not a concern."

The proposed settlement is set to face a final fairness hearing Oct. 22 in Benton before U.S. District Judge Phil Gilbert.

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