Several Santa Rosa residents faced off in court Tuesday against Union Pacific Railroad and JDS Uniphase, companies they contend tainted their wells with potentially cancer-causing chemicals.
?The evidence will show how their business practices contaminated the environment, how it contaminated the groundwater and how it entered the defendants? wells,? attorney Joseph Gonzalez of Westlake Village said in opening statements in a civil trial in Sonoma County Superior Court.
Gonzalez blamed at least part of the pollution to land owned by Union Pacific on Frances Avenue and to chemical barrels from Optical Coating Laboratories, Inc., found at that property and an adjacent parcel.
OCLI became part of JDS Uniphase in 2000.
Defense attorneys, however, contended the problem was caused by two dry cleaning establishments in the immediate neighborhood, which is a half mile from the Frances Avenue site.
?The plaintiffs drinking water wells were contaminated; it?s just that they were contaminated by the dry cleaners,? said attorney John Barg of San Francisco, who was representing Union Pacific.
Barg said that the Union Pacific property was badly contaminated by metal recyclers that rented it and by ?midnight dumpers? who left toxics there, but the contamination moved west, away from the affected neighborhood.
The remarks came on the first day of what is expected to be a four-month trial.
?It has been a nightmare,? said Annette Wolcott, who grew up in the West College Avenue house her father built and had to rely on bottled water for two years before getting connected to city water.
Wolcott is one of 32 residents of the eight homes in that neighborhood where the wells were discovered in 2000 to be severely contaminated.
?We had to shower with the windows open; we had to put a charcoal filter on our wells,? Wolcott said. ?Until you lose something like that, you don?t know what you have.?
The case has a history of twists and turns. When it first went to trial in 2006, after five years of legal wrangling, a mistrial was declared within two weeks. Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Allan Hardcastle also slapped the residents? attorneys with $2 million in sanctions, which were later overturned by the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
The case involves a small neighborhood at West College Avenue and Clover Drive where the wells in 1999 were found to be tainted with TCE and PCE ? trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene. Both are suspected of causing cancer.
The residents sought $600 million in damages from the companies and public agencies that they claim were either responsible for the contamination or mishandled the hazard by not properly notifying the community.
Before the trial, the city of Santa Rosa settled for $1.5 million and Sonoma County for $750,000, and the owners of the property where the dry cleaners were located settled for $400,000.
Gonzalez, representing the residents, said that chemicals migrated to the private wells from the Union Pacific property and an adjacent parcel, which also was contaminated during its use as a wrecking yard from 1967 to 1985.
The extent of the pollution was detected by the Santa Rosa Fire Department in 1987, followed by an investigation by the regional water board in 1988.
Gonzalez contends Union Pacific knew or should have known about the problem and when they found out, did little to remedy it. He asserted that OCLI stored more than 300 drums of chemicals left over from its manufacturing process at the sites.