Rutland Herald (VT)
August 19, 2002

Dereliction of duty

It was shocking news five years ago when Vermonters learned that for 13 years residents of a housing complex in Castleton had been allowed to drink contaminated water. Their landlord knew about the water. State health and environmental officials knew about the water. Yet no one told residents of the 12 townhouses at Parsons Hill that the water they were drinking was laced with a carcinogenic chemical known as tetrachloroethylene.

The tenants had to discover for themselves the facts about the water they were drinking. That occurred when many of them realized they were suffering from similar illnesses: kidney problems, headaches, throat spasms, sores, rashes, nervous disorders. These are the known symptoms of exposure to tetrachloroethylene. After the tenants realized they had experienced similar health problems, their investigation led to the information that the water they were drinking was contaminated.

Five years later the lawsuits brought by the tenants of Parsons Hill are inching forward in the Vermont courts. Establishing responsibility in the case will be a complex and difficult legal challenge. But as the courts sort out competing legal claims, it is worth remembering the nature of the problem in dispute.

The problem was essentially one of responsibility. State officials had advised the Parsons Hill landlords, Yvonne and Cathy Rooney, to warn their tenants not to drink the water. The landlords did not do so.

Meanwhile, years passed and the state Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation failed to take action either to ascertain whether or not tenants were drinking the water or to correct the problem.

The lawsuits proceeding in the Vermont courts may show that responsibility in the case extends far beyond Vermont. That's because the source of the contamination was the coal tar sealant lining the water tank at Parsons Hill. The sealant was the product of Koppers Industry Inc., and problems of chemical leaching have been linked to the sealant in several states, including New York, California, and Mississippi.

Koppers' lawyers have said that Koppers is not responsible because it did not exist when the Castleton water tank was installed. Lawyers for the plaintiffs have charged that Koppers has frequently reconstituted itself in order to evade liability for harm caused by its product.

In a recent court action, Judge Alden Bryan ordered Koppers to provide corporate documents to the plaintiffs, which may shed light on Koppers' knowledge of the problem and responsibility.

The case is complex. It is never easy to show a clear cause-and-effect relationship between an environmental hazard and an illness. The levels of contamination fluctuated over the years and even from hour to hour. Defendants will try to cast doubt on the evidence in the same way tobacco companies have sought to show that evidence linking tobacco with cancer is not conclusive.

There are numerous defendants in the case, including the landlords, the company that built the housing project, the company that installed the water system, the company that provided the water tank, the company that painted the tank with sealant, the company that produced the sealant, and others. The defendants may be hoping the suit becomes a legal morass in which the plaintiffs' claims sink out of sight.

But whatever happens in court, it is important to remember a dereliction of duty shared by many was responsible for what happened. The tenants at Parsons Hill were drinking poisoned water. Many people knew it, but no one told them.