Court Holds Dry-Cleaning Chemical Makers Responsible for California Pollution

Three chemical manufacturers were ordered to pay the city of Modesto $178 million for contaminating its water with suspected carcinogens.

Jurors in San Francisco Superior Court found the companies acted with malice because they failed to tell dry cleaners how to use the chemicals perchloroethylene or trichloroethylene without harming the environment.

The jury levied more than $175 million in punitive damages late Tuesday and $3.2 million in actual damages for groundwater contamination.

Vulcan Materials Co. was ordered to pay $100 million in punitive damages, Dow Chemical Co. was ordered to pay $75 million and RR Street & Co. Inc. to pay $75,000.

"We're gratified at the jury's verdict," said attorney Duane C. Miller, who represented the city in the case. "We believe it's the first time the manufacturers of (perchloroethylene) have been held accountable for damages caused by that product."

Representatives of Birmingham, Ala.-based Vulcan Materials and Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical said they planned to appeal.

"We think the punitive damages are completely without merit," said David Donaldson, of Birmingham, Ala.-based Vulcan Materials.

Dow Chemical said in a statement that there was no proof any of their products had directly caused pollution in Modesto.

Calls to RR Street, of Naperville, Ill., were not immediately returned.

Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries and Occidental Chemical Corporation, of Dallas, were ordered to contribute to the $3.2 million awarded in compensatory damages.

Two dry-cleaning businesses that were named in the lawsuit will not have to pay damages. They did not know of the contamination risk, Miller said.

Modesto filed the lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court in December 1998, but the case didn't go to trial until February.