AG Racine Announces New Lawsuit Against Major Chemical Manufacturer for Polluting District Waterways with Cancer-Causing Toxin

 Lawsuit Builds on AG Racine’s Efforts to Protect District Natural Resources, Hold Accountable Companies that Pollute our Communities & Cause Serious, Disparate Harm to Black and Brown Residents

WASHINGTON, D.C  Attorney General Karl A. Racine today announced a new lawsuit against Velsicol, a major chemical manufacturer, for violating District environmental laws by contaminating local waterways and natural resources with toxic, cancer-causing chemicals for decades, harming the health and safety of low-income Black and brown District residents.

Joined by representatives from NAACP DC, Sierra Club DC, Groundwork Anacostia River DC, and local activists, AG Racine also highlighted the Office of the Attorney General’s (OAG) groundbreaking work over the past several years to hold accountable companies that pollute our rivers and natural resources, focusing on the disparate impact that such actions often have on communities of color.

“Our office prioritizes enforcing DC’s environmental laws to combat the climate crisis, fight for environmental justice, and ensure that every District resident has access to clean air and water,” said AG Racine. “The environment is a precious resource that belongs to everyone, and far too often Black and brown communities of color are forced to bear the brunt of pollution, toxic sites, and contaminated water supplies. With today’s lawsuit, we are going after Velsicol which - for decades - made dollar after dollar of profit while poisoning DC residents with dangerous chemicals that they knew caused severe health problems, including cancer. The damage that Velsicol caused will continue to impact the health of communities in the District of Columbia far into the future, particularly Black and brown community members, as these chemicals persist in our environment and continue to wreak havoc on our natural resources. Our office will use our authority to make Velsicol pay for their wrongdoings and continue the fight for cleaner, safer, and healthier futures for DC families.”

“Environmental justice is a civil rights issue,” said Akosua Ali, President of the NAACP DC. “The long-term impacts of releasing these toxic, cancer-causing chemicals into the Anacostia has had disproportionate health-impacts on lower-income, Black residents in the District of Columbia.  The NAACP works to ensure communities of color have access to clean water and natural resources clear of pollutants and we are proud to partner with AG Racine to fight this environmental injustice.”

"Attorney General Racine continues to stand up for District residents, wildlife, and our environment by taking on polluting corporations and holding them accountable for decades of harm to our waterways and neighborhoods,” said Matt Gravatt, Chair of Sierra Club DC. “Toxic pollution too often disparately impacts communities of color and low-income communities--a systemic injustice that harms lives and livelihoods and fouls our rivers and environment across generations. No polluter is above the law. Sierra Club applauds Attorney General Racine for his continued leadership and work to hold bad actors to account and ensure that every District resident has access to clean water and air no matter where they live." 

“Today’s action by AG Racine is a critical step towards holding those who pollute our natural resources accountable,” said Dennis Chestnut, former Executive Director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC. “Environmental justice requires a full-circle re-investment to clean up polluted areas and restore the health of our river and our community. We appreciate AG Racine’s strong commitment to fighting for our environment and hope his efforts serve as a warning to anyone who might threaten DC residents’ health and safety.”

Background on Velsicol lawsuit
OAG is alleging that Velsicol violated the District’s Brownfield Revitalization Act and the common law, including public nuisance and product liability. From 1945 to 1988, Velsicol solely manufactured chlordane, a pesticide used to kill insects. Chlordane damaged the District’s natural resources, including the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, and forced the District to spend millions of dollars to assess and address its risks to human health and the environment.

Chlordane is persistent and continues to impair District waterways and wildlife and threaten human health decades after its removal from the market.

No later than 1959, Velsicol knew chlordane could cause cancer. Rather than halt its sales and share this information with the public or with regulators, Velsicol embarked on a years-long campaign of misinformation and deception to prolong profiting from selling chlordane products, including throughout the District of Columbia. This campaign included targeted advertisements for household use of chlordane long after Velsicol knew about the chemical’s toxic effects.

In December 1977, a grand jury in Chicago, Illinois, handed down an 11-count felony indictment charging six Velsicol executives with conspiring to defraud the United States and conceal material facts from the EPA, such as data showing chlordane’s potential to cause cancer in humans. Still, Velsicol continued to sell and market chlordane, including in the District.

Chlordane continues to widely contaminate the District’s natural resources, including its waters. In 2016, twenty-one of the District’s 38 miles of rivers and streams were not meeting or threatened to not meet the water quality standard for chlordane. Addressing Velsicol’s contamination of the District with chlordane has cost, and will continue to cost, District taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

The District brings this action against Velsicol for all damages to the District, including compensatory and punitive damages, and for declaratory and injunctive relief, including civil penalties, to remedy Velsicol’s promotion and sale of chlordane.

Read the full complaint here.

See an example of one of Velsicol's marketing videos here.

The Office of the Attorney General’s Actions to Promote Environmental Justice
Since taking office, AG Racine has prioritized protecting the environment, fighting climate change, and standing up for Black and brown residents who are disparately impacted by environmental harms. No one is above the law when it comes to environmental justice and protection, which AG Racine has made clear by the wide range of legal actions OAG has taken and wins they have secured. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) also works closely with the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) to coordinate and implement Anacostia River cleanup efforts and investigate and assess damages to these natural resources. Since 2014, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has recovered over $60 million to promote environmental justice in the District through legal action.

Highlights include:  

  • $52 million recovered from Monsanto for its role in the spread of toxic PCBs in the District’s waters and other natural resources.
  • $2.5 million recovered from a power plant that discharged oil into the Potomac River.
  • $400,000 penalty from a developer for violating District laws that protect residents from toxic lead.
  • $350,000 penalty from a property owner that leaked toxic used oil in Ward 5.
  • $125,000 penalty from Greyhound over air pollution violations at Union Station that led the company to adopt bus anti-idling policies nationwide.
  • Multistate lawsuits to stop the Trump administration from rolling back critical environmental protections such as auto emissions standards and Clean Water Act rules.
  • Taking action against Pepco for systemically mishandling the District’s solar energy programs and overcharging thousands of DC households on their electric bills.

OAG has a strong track record of protecting District residents from environmental harms and is dedicated to continuing to do all it can to protect the earth and the District in the short and long terms.

Read more about OAG’s efforts to protect the environment and fight for environmental justice.