Central Valley

Chemical companies claim victory over Modesto

Chemical companies say they've won a major victory in an 11-year court battle with Modesto over who should pay for a multimillion-dollar cleanup of sites contaminated with dry-cleaning chemicals.

But the city says the fight's not over yet.

A judge has yet to make a final ruling in the case, which has pitted Modesto against chemical companies since 1998. At stake is the question of who's responsible for a cleanup of deadly chemicals that could cost as much as $200 million. The city has collected about $40 million in settlements with various chemical companies.

But three companies say they've triumphed. A San Francisco Superior Court judge recently issued a tentative ruling that Dow Chemical, R.R. Street & Co. and PPG Industries aren't responsible for cleaning up soil that's tainted with perchloroethylene, a dry-cleaning chemical suspected of causing cancer.

That victory comes on top of another last August, when a judge dismissed an $18.3 million jury award that Modesto won in a related trial over who should pay to clean up groundwater contaminated with perchloroethylene.

"Dow believes it has been vindicated," said Dow's attorney, Gennaro Filice of Filice, Brown, Eassa & McLeod.

Attorneys for Naperville, Ill.-based R.R. Street & Co. issued a written statement saying they were "pleased Judge (Ernest) Goldsmith carefully reviewed the facts in this case and found no wrongdoing by our client."

A spokesman said PPG Industries has "largely prevailed."

But the chemical companies' successes could be short-lived. The tentative ruling in their favor and the dismissed jury award could be undone when a judge issues a final decision in the case. That probably won't happen until this summer, Filice said.

The battle probably won't end there. Both sides can appeal the ruling.

The Modesto city attorney's office said it couldn't discuss the tentative ruling. Rolly Stevens, the assistant city attorney who has been overseeing the case, said in a written statement that he was "disappointed" about the tentative ruling.

But he noted that the city will submit comments on the ruling, and a judge will consider those comments before making the final decision.

The recent tentative ruling is only one chapter in a legal odyssey likely to continue for years. The city sued the chemical companies in 1998, claiming the companies were responsible for removing the hazardous chemicals from wells and soil at dozens of sites. The city said the chemical companies failed to explain how dangerous the chemicals were and didn't tell users how to properly dispose of them.

Since then, Modesto has collected about $40 million from various chemical producers.

The city has started cleanup work on one of the sites, Elwood Dry Cleaners on McHenry Avenue. California is riddled with such sites, which have become an expensive headache for cities. Cleaning them up is costly, complicated and can take decades.

Perchloroethylene, known as PEC, is being phased out in California and cannot be used after 2023.

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378. Follow her at http://twitter.com/BeeReporter.