Property owners’ ability to sue in well water-pollution cases has been severely limited by a new US Supreme Court decision.
The ruling in a case called CTS Corp v. Waldburger could make it far harder for victims of water contamination to get restitution.
“I am stunned by [the] decision,” retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, whose family was impacted by a similar incident, said. “It’s a blow to all victims exposed to and suffering from the health effects of toxic pollution.”
The court ruled that a group of property owners in Asheville, North Carolina, had no right to sue CTS because the 10-year deadline for suing had passed, even though some owners did not know about the contamination until after the timeframe. The property owners claim that their well water was contaminated by a long-defunct electronics plant operated by CTS in the area.
Boon to Polluters
“This Supreme Court ruling is a real boon for polluters, who will now be expressly rewarded for covering up contamination of a community’s water, land and air — and ultimately, people’s bodies,” Heather White, the executive director of the Environmental Working Group, said of the decision.
The court ruled that a North Carolina law limiting pollution lawsuits to 10 years after the contamination applied in the case. The property owners’ attorneys had argued that a federal law which establishes a wider time frame applied, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. The Supreme Court overturned the Fourth Circuit’s ruling with its decision.
Critics like White contend the CTS ruling will make it much easier for polluters to avoid responsibility. White is worried that polluters will simply try to hide their acts until statutes of limitations expire.
“Essentially, the court is saying that if polluters can keep their acts secret until the deadline set by the statute of repose expires, Americans have no right to sue,” White said. “This decision will give polluters a powerful financial incentive to conceal what they have done. It could unleash a deluge of industry-backed lobbying efforts in state after state, seeking to enact laws similar to the North Carolina statute and further undermining Americans’ right to protection from special interests.”
White is afraid that oil and gas drillers that use fracking, and other companies accused of water pollution, will get such laws on the books in other states. Some property owners are charging that fracking contaminates water wells, as Off The Grid News has reported.
“It’s very devastating to me,” property owner Dot Rice said. Rice lives just 1,000 feet from the site of the CTS factory. “The contamination has gotten much worse. There are more people getting sick and now there can be nothing done about it.”
Rice and other residents didn’t learn about the water contamination in their area until 1997, but the CTS factory shut down in 1987. The case could impact large numbers of homeowners in North Carolina and beyond.
Obama Administration Accused of Siding with Polluters
Ensminger could be impacted because his family’s water was contaminated by pollution from the Camp Lejeune Marine Base in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Ensminger blames the water pollution for the leukemia that killed his 9-year-old daughter in 1985. He’s afraid that the CTS ruling will keep him from suing the federal government. The Camp Lejeune water was from wells, too.
“This decision is ludicrous,” said Ensminger. “Basically what this is telling industry and polluters is, ‘Hey, if you’re deceitful and devious enough to cross that 10-year finish line, we’re going to reward you.”
“The Obama administration was on the side of the polluter,” Ensminger charged.
The veteran was one of a number of critics who noted that the US Department of Justice had filed a brief in defense of CTS in April.
“We are incredibly disappointed in the position taken by the Obama administration, which sided with the polluter in this case by arguing for limiting the reach of federal environmental law,” White said. “It’s a travesty that the administration would do so in an effort to avoid answering to the victims of industrial pollution at Camp Lejeune, people who for years were unknowingly exposed to dangerous chemicals in the water of the military base. This ruling adds more than another insult to injury to these veterans; it may ultimately rob them of the justice they deserve.”
White and Ensminger contend that the Obama Administration was trying to avoid having to pay restitution to Marines and family members who were allegedly sickened by water pollution at Camp Lejeune.
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