Willets Toxics Case Gets Smaller

More than half the 160 remaining claimants in a toxic pollution injury suit have lost their attempt to keep the claims alive in a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Wednesday.

Residents of the MendocinoCounty town of Willets filed a class action in 1999 claiming chemical disposals by Remco Hydraulics Inc. exposed residents to highly toxic chromium and thus caused a wide range of illnesses, including cancer and mental disorders.

The 9th Circuit panel, in an unpublished order, upheld the decision by U.S. District Judge Susan Illston that  86 of the plaintiff’s cases were filed too late.  Only 74 claims remain.

The original lawsuit included more than 1,000 residents, many of whom settled with the company.  Remco had closed the plant in 1995 and declared bankruptcy.

In 2011, Illston rejected 323 plaintiffs when they failed to answer questionnaires about the chemical exposure and alleged injuries.

She also held that the remaining 160 plaintiffs had to be dismissed because their claims as filed too late, under statute of limitation grounds.  She found the Aug. 23, 1999 lawsuit was too late.

But the 9th Circuit disagreed and ruled the deadline to file was 2001 and sent the case back to Illston.

In a second appeal, the unpublished order on Wednesday, approved Illston’s new holding that 89 of the 160 should be dismissed.

The dangers of chromium exposure gained national attention in 2000, with the move “Erin Brockovich,” about chromium pollution by utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in Central California.  Brockovich became involved in the Willits contamination case shortly after the movie was released in August 2000.

Case:  Avila v. Willets Environmental Remediation Trust, No. 11-17099