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Clovis wins $22 million against Shell Oil over toxic drinking water

The city of Clovis won its more than three-month-long civil trial against chemical manufacturing giant Shell Oil Co. over the clean-up of a toxic chemical found in drinking-water wells around the city of 108,000 people. The chemical is 1,2,3-trichloropropane, or TCP, which is a waste product from making plastic. TCP was in farm fumigants last used in the 1980s, which were injected into the ground to kill tiny worms called nematodes. A jury on Wednesday awarded the city nearly $22 million, finding that Clovis residents were harmed by the design of the fumigant, that Shell did not prove the benefits of its product outweighed the risks, and that those risks were known at the time it was sold. A lawyer for the city said the verdict could increase the likelihood that Shell will settle a similar case filed by the city of Fresno.

Clean-water advocates say the unregulated chemical, which has been linked to cancer and liver and kidney damage in animals, has been in wells throughout the region for decades. TCP is considered unsafe to drink over a lifetime at levels lower than what can currently be detected. It was added to the state’s list of chemicals known to cause cancer in 1999. This is the first time a community has won a lawsuit against a chemical company for TCP contamination. Clovis argued in Fresno County Superior Court that Shell acted intentionally and maliciously by including TCP in its fumigant and failing to warn people about its risks. Shell argued that Clovis water is safe to drink, that its product helped California agriculture and that its labels adequately warned of risks. TCP is most prevalent in Valley water, especially in Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties, but is also found elsewhere in the state, including Los Angeles County. The Clovis case is one of at least 40 legal actions filed against Shell and Dow Chemical Co. in California since the mid-2000s.

The California Department of Public Health has a goal of keeping TCP to 0.7 parts per trillion, which is 1,000 times lower than the limit set for many other chemicals. The goal is intended to limit the lifetime cancer risk to one case in a million people.

An effort to regulate the chemical is underway. State officials in July proposed a drinking water standard that would require water systems to start removing TCP from tap water by 2018. The State Water Resources Control Board proposed a limit of 5 ppt – the lowest level detectable by certified filtration methods. The limit would pose a cancer risk of less than 1 in 143,000 people, and filtration could cost more than $34 million annually state-wide.



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