In 2004, a group of public utilities in Illinois took pesticide-giant Syngenta to court to answer for the pollution caused by its flagship herbicide atrazine. Syngenta’s response? Wage a PR campaign against the court itself. While transforming a lawsuit into a media spectacle is a common, if unfortunate, tactic these days, targeting the court itself is a new low.
Each year, drinking water providers spend millions of dollars cleaning up the huge mess created by use of Syngenta's flagship herbicide — the rivers and reservoirs contaminated with atrazine that runs off the vast monocultures of corn blanketing the Midwest and Great Plains. Atrazine is a hormone disruptor that's toxic to people, and the EPA limits the amount that can legally be present in water supplied by drinking water providers. The Illinois utilities are suing Syngenta in Madison County to recoup the money they've spent keeping their customers safe from the company's pollution.
The case, Holiday Shores vs Syngenta, has already dragged on for seven years and the trial hasn't even started yet, thanks to legal wrangling by Syngenta's lawyers. Court documents released in late April show that early in the case Syngenta and its PR firm, Jayne Thompson & Associates,
…outline[d] a plan to tie the defense of this action into a negative public relations campaign that castigates the Madison County judicial system as a "judicial hellhole" and a source of "jackpot justice," and, in part, to undertake efforts to enhance the public’s perception of Syngenta and the herbicide it manufactures at the expense of the Madison County judicial system.
Stephen Tillery, the plaintiff's lawyer, called the plan a "campaign of intimidation being conducted against the courts and judges by corporations such as Syngenta and bankrolled by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce." Tillery continued, "Some corporations and the Chamber are spending millions upon millions of dollars to subvert justice and to try to prevent the people of our region from exercising their right to seek damages for injuries caused by corporate misconduct, defective products, fraud, and deceptive practices.”
In related news, the EPA just announced the next phase in its ongoing investigation of atrazine. This summer, an Agency Scientific Advisory Panel will continue probing the herbicide's potential to cause cancer and other health problems. They'll also be looking at its presence in drinking water. Look for Syngenta to fire up its PR machine yet again.