Trichloroethylene (TCE) Water Contamination

Tucson, Arizona, is the largest city in the United States that receives all its drinking water from underground sources. The 21-year TCE legal battle helped define Arizona laws on pollution coverage and is widely considered among the most important litigation in U.S. history involving personal injuries caused by water pollution.

Tuscon, Arizona

In 1951, the U.S. Government contracted with a large industrial corporation to build and operate a military guided-missile systems facility adjacent to the Tucson airport. The operation used substantial quantities of industrial solvents to clean parts and circuitry necessary to assemble the finished products.

According to plant design, water from an underground aquifer was pumped into process rooms to wash “spent” solvents. Without treatment for anything other than acid content, liquid waste containing trichloroethylene (TCE) and other hazardous solvents was then directed outside the plant to a “pond” area that consisted of unlined ditches and lagoons.

Within a few years of the plant’s opening, residents near the airport noticed an unusual odor and taste in the water supplied to their homes from city wells directly adjacent to the plant. But it was not until 1981, some 30 years later, that an EPA-sponsored researcher first discovered that the community’s drinking water was highly contaminated with solvents that were officially classified as probable and suspected carcinogens. At the behest of concerned clients, the Environmental Litigation Group (ELG) at Baron & Budd hired scientists whose studies revealed that several unusual forms of cancer – particularly among children in the area – were at almost epidemic levels.

For the ensuing litigation, Baron & Budd conducted massive discovery, developed a model of the chemicals’ travel through the desert soil into the underground aquifer, and reviewed consumption rates by each of the more than 1,600 individual residents represented by our firm. Other historical information revealed that the defendant was well aware of its poor industrial practices, which proved invaluable to supporting our claims of the company’s conscious indifference to the safety and well-being of residents.

Additional discovery revealed that tenants at the nearby airport also used hazardous levels of TCE and other solvents to wash and “de-cocoon” the hulls of airplanes in storage since World War II, further contributing to the contamination of the aquifer. After the city and the airport were brought into the suit, their insurance carriers almost immediately filed a separate suit claiming that their insurance policies did not provide coverage for the plaintiffs’ injuries.

The ELG reached a settlement with the city and airport, but instead of collecting the amount from them directly, sought to recover it through the insurance coverage litigation. Shortly after the settlement with the city and airport was reached, the plant entered into a settlement with our clients that still stands as one of the largest recoveries ever obtained in a case of this kind. But the case was far from over – the litigation with the insurance companies ensued for another 15 years, involving two trials, three appeals, and two favorable decisions by the Arizona Supreme Court.

Soon after the ELG won the third appeal, the case reached its conclusion in June 2006 when the last of the insurers agreed to fund the settlements. The 21-year legal battle helped define Arizona laws on pollution coverage and is widely considered among the most important litigation in U.S. history involving personal injuries caused by water pollution. Our TCE lawsuit attorneys fought long and hard to make a difference. In recognition of the litigation team’s accomplishments in this landmark case, the organization Trial Lawyers for Public Justice presented them with its 2006 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award for making “the greatest contribution to the public interest within the last year by trying or settling a precedent-setting case or cases.”