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DC attorney general sues manufacturer over toxic contamination in local rivers

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine is suing a major chemical manufacturer, alleging the company knowingly contaminated local rivers with pollutants for decades.

Racine filed a lawsuit against Velsicol in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Civil Division on Thursday, accusing the company of contaminating the Potomac and Anacostia rivers with chlordane, a toxic chemical produced by the manufacturer. The effects of this contamination had a disproportionate effect on the district’s low-income and black residents, according to Racine.


“In recent years, DC has had to spend millions assessing and addressing the harms of the chemical to our residents and to our environment — cleaning up Velsicol’s mess,” Racine said in a statement. “Environmental justice is intertwined with racial justice. By filing this lawsuit today, we’re standing up for communities of color, who, far too often, bear the brunt of pollution, as they did in this case.”

Chlordane was one of the most widely used pesticides in the United States until the Environmental Protection Agency banned its use in 1988 because of threats to human health. Velsicol profited off being the “sole manufacturer” of the insect pesticide despite learning the product could cause cancer in an internal report in 1959 — nearly 30 years before it was banned, the lawsuit alleges.

The company hid its findings and “embarked on a years-long campaign of misinformation and deception to prolong reaping the financial rewards of selling its chlordane products” in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, according to Racine.

By the time the pesticide was banned by the EPA, more than 30 million homes and buildings had been treated with the substance, according to the suit. A year later in 1989, D.C. officials warned residents not to eat certain fish caught from the Potomac and Anacostia rivers because of chlordane contamination.

Long-term exposure to chlordane is considered dangerous with the EPA defining it as a “probable human carcinogen.” Several studies have linked it to liver cell cancer, miscarriages, depression, worsened diabetes, and bone-marrow diseases, among other things, according to the lawsuit. Even short-term exposure can cause adverse effects, including headaches, blurred vision, dizziness, and nausea, the lawsuit says.

Washington, D.C., in particular, was hit hard by the chlordane contamination, with a 1987 study showing that fish in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers had chlordane levels nearly three times what the Food and Drug Administration considered safe for human consumption. That contamination has persisted to the present day, according to the lawsuit.


“Because chlordane is environmentally persistent, it will continue to circulate in the District’s surface water, sediment, fish, wildlife, marine resources, and other natural resources,” the suit states. “As a result, the District has devoted significant resources to study, monitor, and put forth plans to remediate the damage. Widespread contamination continues posing current and future threats to human health and the well-being of the District’s environment and economy.”

Racine’s lawsuit seeks damages for injury to the district’s natural resources as well as money to cover future costs of analyzing and treating the lasting contamination. A spokesperson for Velsicol did not return a request for comment by the Washington Examiner.

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