Sometimes It’s Not Only the Cost of the Cleanup

Written by John C Bird, P.G. Vice President of EnviroForensics

In Las Vegas, NV this week, the State of Nevada filed suit against the property owners and business operators of long-time dry cleaner for allegedly contaminating the State’s groundwater.  According the State’s lawsuit, the dry cleaner has impacted groundwater beneath the site and the contaminant plume has spread more than 4,000 feet underneath several residential neighborhoods and past the Las Vegas National Golf Course property.  According to the State’s webpage regarding this dry cleaner, the discovery of a discharge of tetrachloroethylene (PCE) was first reported on November 29, 2000 via State’s spill-reporting hotline. The release was discovered during a routine environmental site assessment performed as part of a property transaction.  According to the latest groundwater investigation report, PCE was present in all but two of the wells sampled with concentrations ranging from 2.0 parts per billion (ppb) to 2,600 ppb.   Safe drinking-water levels are considered to be less than 5.0 ppb for PCE.

The State is requesting a mandatory injunction requiring property owners and business operators to investigate the contamination resulting from releases from the former property; monitor the groundwater; submit a corrective action plan to investigate and cleanup the soil and groundwater; and implement the corrective action plan.  If granted, the injunction may cost the property owners and business operators quite a bit of money.  Attorneys for the defendants have estimated the cleanup to cost millions of dollars.

In November of last year, a separate lawsuit was filed by down-gradient residents against many of the same defendants.  The residents have alleged that the groundwater plume located beneath their properties is a threat to their health and the value of their properties.  The discovery process may take a year and could be followed by a trial if a settlement isn’t reached.  At this time, it is unclear as to the potential dollar amount associated with the down-gradient residents’ claim for damages.

Of course, there are valid arguments from both sides regarding who is responsible for the cleanup costs and damages, if any exist.  But the bottom line is that a lawsuit costs everyone money.  It goes without saying that two lawsuits are much more costly than one and it is important to remember that the release of contaminants can cause damages to many parties, not just the environment.