New Orleans, La. – Two pesticide companies agreed Tuesday to pay $50 million to about 3,500 people who lived near a pesticide plant that contaminated their New Orleans neighborhood. T.H. Agriculture and Nutrition and Harcros Chemicals Corp., both of Kansas City, agreed to the state court settlement on the fifth day of jury selection for the class action lawsuit, attorney Lewis Unglesby said.

He represented people who lived near the pesticide and herbicide plant, which operated from the 1950s until 1987, when the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board discovered contamination in its wastewater.
Testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1994 found substantial amounts of contamination in the neighborhood, he said. Those included DDT and some components of Agent Orange, Unglesby said.

T.H. Agriculture & Nutrition and its parent, Philips Electronics North America Corp., have paid for most of the cleanup work at the site and in the surrounding neighborhood, which EPA is considering as a possible Superfund site. An employee of Harcros, which bought the plant shortly before the pollution was found, said company spokesmen all had left the Kansas City offices for the day.

Unglesby said amounts for each plaintiff will range from small to substantial, depending on what years people lived in the area, the extent of their exposure, whether they own land there, and what illnesses, if any, were caused or worsened by the exposure. Unglesby said the case would have been much harder to bring and a settlement much less likely under new laws passed this month.

“You would not have had the concern about punitive damages, which clearly would have been warranted,” he said. During the special session that ended last week, the Legislature passed a law ending punitive damages in certain hazardous waste cases. Another new law eliminates the concept of “strict liability” from lawsuits. Backers said it gives property owners a chance to prove they were not negligent when an accident happens on their property.

Under the new law, plaintiffs would have had to prove that the company knew pesticides were spreading beyond its property line, Unglesby said. “By failing to test and by refusing to put up any kind of monitoring devices … they could have claimed they didn’t know,” he said.