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Cancer-causing pesticide polluted local rivers for decades, D.C. alleges

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) in December on Capitol Hill. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine announced a lawsuit against a chemical manufacturer on Thursday, alleging that its pesticide contaminated the Potomac and the Anacostia rivers for decades with chemicals it knew were linked to cancer.

Flanked by environmentalists and representatives of the local NAACP, Racine (D) said at a news conference that the effects of Velsicol Chemical’s alleged contamination particularly hit “low-income Black and Brown” residents, in a case that bridges environmental and racial justice.

“The history of our country is such that whenever there is trash that needs to be disposed of or there are things that could hurt people, it always went to where people had less power,” Racine said. “And, yes, that means Black and Brown communities.”

Beginning in 1945, Illinois-based Velsicol was the sole maker of chlordane as a pesticide for killing insects, Racine said. Although the company was aware the product could cause cancer by 1959, he alleged, Velsicol opted for a campaign of “misinformation and deception” and continued to sell the product until 1988.

Monsanto to pay $52 million toward contamination cleanup in the Potomac, other area waterways

The lawsuit says studies have linked long-term exposure to chlordane to liver cancer, as well as miscarriages, depression and bone-marrow diseases. Shorter-term exposure, it says, has been linked to blurred vision, headaches, tremors and insomnia, among other central nervous system symptoms.

Chlordane accumulates “over time in fish, birds, and mammals, and is found in food, air, water, soil and sediment,” the lawsuit says, and D.C. residents “then are exposed to chlordane from eating contaminated food such as marine life, breathing contaminated air, or drinking contaminated water.”

Racine alleged that the health effects of the chemical continue in the area.

“That’s the way dangerous chemicals work: They don’t just go away if you put water on them,” he said. “They continue to work on people and continue to make them sick.”

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine will not seek elective office in 2022

Representatives for Velsicol did not respond to a request for comment.

A 2016 analysis of the District’s 38 miles of rivers and streams found that 20 miles were “not in compliance with the water quality standards for chlordane.” The lawsuit highlighted Poplar Point on the Anacostia as a particular hot zone of contamination.

According to the lawsuit, by the time chlordane was banned by the federal government in 1988, “approximately 30 million homes and structures in the United States” had been treated with it.

Velsicol has been sued before in the region over the environmental impact of its products. In 2008, the company settled with the state of Maryland, which had sued for alleged violations of state laws on water pollution and hazardous substances. Velsicol agreed then to pay $200,000 and investigate and clean up its contaminated facility in Chestertown.

Since Racine won election in 2014 as the District’s first elected attorney general, his office has recovered more than $60 million in pollution- and environment-related cases. That figure includes $52 million recovered from the Monsanto agricultural products company and $2.5 million from GenOn Holdings, both in 2020, for negative environmental effects in the nation’s capital.

The Monsanto case revolved around the Roundup weedkiller maker’s sale and use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in D.C. between the 1920s and the late 1970s. The city’s lawsuit alleged that at least 36 waterways in Washington were contaminated with high levels of PCBs, including the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

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That same year, Racine’s office settled with GenOn over a now-closed coal-fired Alexandria power plant.

Racine, who is not running for reelection next month, on Thursday linked his office’s work on environmental issues to prominent national cases of racial justice.

“Think of Flint, Michigan, or Jackson, Mississippi,” he said. “Who got hurt there?”

This story has been updated with further details and context about the lawsuit.