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May 20, 2009 - Modesto Awarded $18M in Groundwater Lawsuit

A San Francisco jury has awarded $18.3 million to Modesto in a long-running lawsuit the city filed 11 years ago against producers of dry cleaning chemicals that leached into soil and polluted groundwater.

Modesto intends to put the money away for groundwater cleanup and to pay its attorneys' fees in the case.

The city argues that the chemical makers -- Dow Chemical of Michigan and PPG Industries of Pennsylvania -- bear a share of the responsibility for what could amount to $100 million in costs to remove perchloroethylene, a chemical referred to as PCE that is suspected of causing cancer, from Modesto groundwater.

The city has collected more than $23 million from other chemical producers in settlements. It also has collected millions of dollars from insurance claims related to PCE leaking into groundwater from dry cleaners.

One of the cleanup efforts is expected to appear before the Modesto City Council next Tuesday.

"We can actually see real results in moving forward on items to clean up the water, which was the whole purpose behind Modesto's efforts in undertaking this action against the polluters," a City Attorney  said.

Monday's verdict against Dow and PPG centered on contamination from Elwood Dry Cleaning Service in the 400 block of McHenry Avenue.

Dow Chemical said it intends to appeal the award. An attorney for PPG Industries did not return a call for comment.

Dow charges that any contamination from its products resulted from accidental mishandling by dry cleaners.

"These isolated incidents had nothing to do with Dow's safe warning and use guidelines," Dow spokesman Jarod Davis said. "We continue to believe that PCE can be used safely when dry cleaners and distributors follow safe use and handling guidelines."

The jury met for 114 days of trial and deliberation. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith dismissed most of the sites that Modesto claimed were contaminated, finding that the city didn't provide evidence to support the charges.

Goldsmith and the jury dismissed claims against one of the chemical makers that Modesto sued. R.R. Street of Illinois was found not to be responsible for any contamination in Modesto.

"We're just ready to move on after 10 years of litigation," said the attorney who defended R.R. Street. "We think the result is we didn't do anything wrong and we just want to go home."

The companies in the case argue that Modesto's drinking water is filtered and safe to drink.

Goldsmith has another claim to consider in the case pertaining to a state redevelopment law.

"The bottom line is that I do not think that this is the final word," an Assistant City Attorney said. "I believe that we can expect more litigation."

Cities throughout California are looking for ways to pay for PCE cleanup. Visalia recently dug six wells to determine the scope of PCE pollution in its city. Turlock is working with the state to remove the chemical from its soil.

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