The first chapter in a nearly decade-long fight against one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies came to a close Thursday when a Vermilion Parish jury issued a verdict awarding $5.1 million in damages to a group of Cow Island residents to pay for the cleanup of their arsenic-contaminated soil and groundwater.
The lawsuit is the result of a Cow Island priest’s battle with cancer — he was actually the second priest from the Cow Island rectory to be diagnosed with the disease — and his hunch to get his water well tested in 2004. The test results showed his water contained extremely high levels of arsenic, prompting the priest to instruct his congregation to have their water wells tested as well.
|Lafayette attorney Richard Broussard|
“A whole bunch of people in Cow Island found arsenic in their wells, and everybody started looking for the source,” says Richard Broussard, a Cow Island native and one of the lead attorneys in the lawsuit.
The maximum allowed limit for drinking water, says Broussard, is 10 parts per billion of arsenic. The Cow Island water wells, however, ranged from 20 to as high as 800 parts per billion of arsenic, with the majority falling between 40 and 60. “Ten parts per billion is not good; it’s just the maximum acceptable level. Let’s just say a public water system with 11 parts per billion would be immediately shut down.”
The hunt for the source was on, engineers were hired, and the search eventually pointed to an old community dipping vat for cattle. The parish, says Broussard, purchased the dipping vat back at the turn of the 20th century as part of the U.S. Government’s Tick Eradication Program — a fight waged between the early-1900s and 1937 against the threat of “Texas tick fever.”
The dip used by farmers in Cow Island and throughout the world was produced by William F. Cooper and Nephews, which was the world’s largest manufacturer of arsenical dip for most of the 20th century.
“When the program ended in 1937, cattlemen continued using the Cooper dip, including my family and my wife’s family down at Cow Island and Forked Island,” says Broussard. “The approved method of disposing of the dipping solution was to pour it on the ground. The literature at the time said, ‘where it will seep harmlessly away.’”
In 1946, Cooper’s learned of a number of deaths in Africa caused by villagers drinking water contaminated from the arsenic-based dipping vats. Yet the company, despite knowing about the poisonous nature of its arsenical dip and its ability to seep through “preferential pathways” into the groundwater, never published any warnings.
“Everyone in this area continued using Cooper’s dip until the ’50s, ’60s and on our ranch into the ’70s,” says Broussard.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally outlawed the use of arsenical dip in 1975, and by 2004, when Cow Island’s residents discovered the source of their groundwater contamination, Cooper’s had, well, flew the coop.
“It took us about six months of research to figure out that when the EPA outlawed arsenical dip in ’75, that’s when Cooper’s started a series of transactions to disappear,” says Broussard.
It was finally discovered where Cooper’s ended up: Buried in a mountain of acquisitions that traced all the way up to GlaxcoSmithKline — the London-based pharmaceutical company recently ordered to pay a $3 billion fraud settlement to the United States for drug misrepresentations.
When the lawsuit was filed in 2004, GSK lawyered up with the prominent New Orleans law firm of Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore. The case was originally dismissed by the trial judge but later sent back to district court after rulings from the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal and the state Supreme Court, resulting in Thursday’s verdict in favor of the Cow Island plaintiffs.
According to the jury’s verdict, $746,120 of the $5.1 million verdict will go to the John and Gayle Broussard Revocable Trust for the cleanup of the contaminated water and soil near the old dipping vat, which includes about a mile-long area around the site. The remaining $4.3 million, according to the verdict, will go into a special court-administered fund for groundwater cleanup by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
Thursday’s decision is the first of its kind and represents only one of four contaminated areas in Vermilion Parish that are included in the lawsuit, says Broussard.
“The trial court decided to try one vat at a time, and currently there are four vats included in our suit, but there’s way more contamination from countless dipping vats from here through all the southwestern states,” says Broussard.
Read more about the lawsuit in the next issue of ABiz, which publishes Aug. 22.