Coca-Cola Sued for Groundwater Pollution in Michigan
By Chris Killian
April 28, 2010

The accumulation of juice wastes sprayed over more than 40 years on fields behind the plant caused a condition in the soil that releases naturally occurring iron, manganese and arsenic particles into groundwater, according to the MDEQ. Monitoring wells near the former spray fields have shown levels of these heavy metals above current federal limits. There is a plume of heavy metals and contaminants that has tainted more than 20 wells east of the plant. Coca Cola provides bottled water for those whose water is contaminated.

PAW PAW — Eighty current and former Paw Paw residents are suing the Coca-Cola Co., seeking damages for groundwater contamination they say has been caused by the company’s Minute Maid juice plant in Paw Paw Township.

The seven-count complaint, filed Monday in Van Buren County Circuit Court by New York City law firm Weitz & Luxenberg P.C., alleges the chemical nutrients and cleaning agents in wastewater that was sprayed on fields near the plant for more than 30 years robbed the soil of oxygen and released metals that contaminated groundwater, which is used by many residents in the area.

The suit was filed to “protect plaintiffs, whose properties have been and will continue to be contaminated and whose health has been and will continue to be harmed by chemical pollutants including, but not limited to, manganese, lead, iron and arsenic, that have entered the environment as a result of the activities of Coca-Cola,” according to court documents.

In a statement, Coca-Cola North America said it was “very disappointed in this unjustified action” and is “taking responsible steps to do the right thing with residents and regulators and to meet our legal obligations.”

The company said it is working with the state to address the groundwater issues and stopped spraying wastewater on fields at the Paw Paw plant. It has invested $10 million in a wastewater-treatment facility and improvements, the company statement said, and is providing bottled water to some homes and business that may have been affected by local groundwater conditions.

The suit, the company statement said, “is not the best way to help the community and costs us resources that would be better used to support and create jobs and to continue to work cooperatively with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment to investigate, identify and implement responses to groundwater issues.

”We are members of this community and care about its well-being, whereas plaintiff’s attorneys do not share that concern.”

Plaintiffs are seeking restitution for damages ranging from reduced property values to the cost to clean up the contamination, said Robin Greenwald, head of the Environmental and Toxic Torts Unit at Weitz & Luxenberg. Other plaintiffs named in the suit allege health issues, including gastrointestinal, kidney and central nervous system disorders.

The suit does not state how much the plaintiffs are seeking in damages, but Greenwald said it would likely be “in the millions” of dollars.

“This is not going to be a quick fix,” Greenwald said. “For years, no one had any idea there was contamination. They just recently found out.”

The law firm regularly collaborates with environmental activist Erin Brockovich, whose legal team last summer indicated it planned to file a lawsuit against Coca-Cola for its alleged contamination of groundwater near the plant, located at 38279 Red Arrow Highway.

Spraying of wastewater from food-processing facilities is a common and legal practice. But when organic matter is sprayed in excess over fields, it can rob the soil of oxygen and cause metals such as iron, arsenic, manganese and lead to leach into the water supply.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment and Coca-Cola have agreed that sampled water near the plant’s former spray fields has amounts of heavy metals that exceed state standards.

The health effects of drinking water with high levels of arsenic are relatively unknown. The DNRE’s website says ingesting high levels of arsenic can cause skin discoloration and cancer.

The company has said they have been working with the state over the past several years to address the concentration of metals in the groundwater and have submitted a draft remedial-investigation report. Coca-Cola has been supplying more than 20 Paw Paw Township residents with bottled water for more than a year as a precaution.

Juice wastes have been sprayed on fields near the Coca-Cola plant since 1961. Various companies operated the plant over the years until Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid unit bought the facility in 1979. Coca-Cola paid $50,000 in fines to the state for oversaturating its spray fields and allowing wastewater to drain to adjacent property. In 2002, Coca-Cola built its own wastewater-treatment plant, eliminating the need for spray fields.

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