A district judge ruled the case could proceed as a class action against General Mills following claims from a group of residents that vapors of the carcinogen trichloroethylene (TCE) were present in homes and threatening inhabitants and business owners in the area.
Donovan Frank certified the class action as a ‘hybrid’ with two phases: a primary trial to address liability and a second-phase of proceedings to address individual damages.
Solvent disposal and health concerns
Between 1940-1960 General Mills disposed of its cleaning solvents TCE via soil absorption pits on site – a manner it said was “customary for the times”. Such disposal techniques, however, caused groundwater contamination in the surrounding area; predominantly residential.
In November, 2013 an investigation was launched by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) to look into concerns that solvent vapors could pose a health risk to residents.
Long-term exposure to TCE has been associated with liver, kidney and blood cancers but health officials were more concerned about the short-term effects of vapor inhalation such as immune system weakness.
Findings showed the presence of TCE vapors in the area and as a result, General Mills paid for the installment of vapor mitigation systems in 118 homes where levels were highest, including the homes of the plaintiffs.
However, these residents insist vapors persist and have raised concerns over the health implications of this.
General Mills argued contamination beneath the home was not an injury in or of itself but the court disagreed.
“Plaintiffs here allege that all houses in the class area are contaminated and that all members have been injured by that contamination. Plaintiffs present evidence that TCE is a carcinogen and that the entire area will need to be remediated,” said district judge Frank.
General Mills liable?
Environmental science expert Dr Everett, representing the plaintiffs, said scientific data showed “large quantities of toxic chemicals, including TCE, at the facility has resulted in widespread soil vapor contamination” in the area.
He said all of this groundwater contamination had originated from the General Mills facility, stating no other known vapor contamination sources had been found in the area. Dr Everett investigated two other local businesses twice for vapor contamination but found no evidence.
General Mills, however, maintained there were other businesses that could have contributed to the contamination and added TCE was also commonly found in household products which could explain high levels inside homes.
In an emailed statement, it told BakeryandSnacks.com: “This decision was not intended to decide the underlying merits of the case, and we respectfully disagree with the court. We are seeking further review.”