I’ve been doing environmental contamination cases for about 20 years now, and have talked to hundreds of families who have gotten the bad news that there is a dangerous chemical in their water, air, or yard. What I have learned over the process of talking to these people and being their lawyer in court, is that there are a series of questions that families need to get answers to in order to make good decisions to protect their home and family. Those 10 critical questions are:
1) What is the chemical contaminating my home and how dangerous is it? Depending on the kind of chemical, the dangers can be very extreme or very minimal. For example, there is a family of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including TCE and PCE, that have been studied for years and whose dangers are fairly well known. Others are not so well known. You need to insist on being told what specific chemicals are involved because then you can start getting answers to the question: how dangerous is it? This is especially important if you have children. Recent studies have shown that many of these chemicals are more dangerous to children because their immune systems are not fully formed, and they don’t process toxins as efficiently as adults. If you are dealing with one of these chemicals, it’s very important that you know because that drives what kind of protection you will need to insist on for your family.
2) How long has my family been exposed to this toxic chemical? Why do you need to know this? Because for most of these chemicals, the longer the exposure the greater the danger, especially for children. Many of these chemicals are odorless and tasteless, and you would never know you are being exposed to them. You need someone to tell you how long the chemical has been in your home because that lets you know how concerned you should be about health issues.
3) Will I be able to sell my home with this contamination? There is no question, in my experience and in all the studies I have read, that environmental contamination in a neighborhood, under a home or in a home, hurts the price of that home, sometimes so much so, that until the problem is solved, the house is not sellable. Often, before your home can be sold for a fair price, the threat of contamination has to be eliminated. You will have to be able to honestly tell a buyer that there isn’t a threat anymore. This is why you need to aggressively get after the polluter or government to remove the contamination.
4) Who is responsible for the pollution? This is more than just curiosity. You need to know who was responsible for the contamination and whether that polluter is still in business and has the financial means to fix the contamination. Some of these problems are years or even decades in the making. In many cases, the families are told about contamination coming into their home that was caused by chemicals that were dumped 50 years ago. Many of the original polluters no longer exist. They have gone bankrupt, are out of business, or have been bought out by another company. You want to know if there is someone still around who is legally responsible for cleaning up the pollution and making your family safe.
5) How long has the polluter known about the contamination in my neighborhood? One of the really frustrating things for families I represent is finding out how long ago the polluter dumped the chemicals and knew of the danger to surrounding homes but didn’t tell anyone. This knowledge, however, can actually be helpful to your case in the long run. How? The longer the polluter has known about the contamination, the worse the polluter looks for not cleaning up the problem, for not telling you about it and for allowing your family to be at risk. This creates leverage for you against the polluter in the courtroom.
6) Has the government known about the contamination, and for how long? What I have learned from my almost 20 years of experience, is that in most cases of contamination, somebody in government has known. Often times, a government agency, like the Federal or state EPA, that is supposed to be protecting your family, has known about the problem and failed to tell you about it. It is especially galling when you think about the fact that you pay taxes for this agency to protect you when in reality they are keeping you in the dark, just like the polluter. You need to put a lot of pressure on the agency to fix the problem. Together with your neighbors who are also affected, you need to ask the agency “Why haven’t you protected me?” Let them know that they need to get moving to do the job they should have done years ago.
7) Is it possible to clean up the contamination? Most of the time the answer is yes, but sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes the contamination has been allowed to spread throughout the environment for years. Then, as a practical matter, it can’t be cleaned up, and the best that can be done is to keep it from coming into contact with people. You want to know if the contamination can be cleaned up so you can decide what steps to take next.
8) Who is going to clean up the contamination? What you are really asking is: who is going to pay for the cleanup? Is it the company or the government? If the polluter has gone bankrupt, no longer exists, or does not have the money for an expensive cleanup, that is going to be a problem. More and more, the government is out of the business of financing cleanups because there is not a lot of government money available for these huge environmental problems. What you hope for is that the polluter is around and financially viable and can pay for it, because these cleanups can be enormously expensive, sometimes running into the millions of dollars.
9) How long is it going to take to clean up the contamination? That depends on a number of things: how far has it spread, how long has it been allowed to sit there, how much contamination is involved? This is an area where you and your neighbors can really make a difference by putting pressure on the polluter and the government. Go to the media, demand attention, and insist resources be dedicated to this cleanup. I have heard of cleanups that have taken half a century from the time the problem was first discovered until the time it was cleaned up. Very few cleanups take only months, and many take years. You can have an impact on the timeline if you and your lawyer demand urgency.
10) How do I protect my family right now and should I get a lawyer? This is one of the most important questions on the list, and depends, first of all, on how the contamination is coming into contact with you and your family. If it’s coming out of your faucet, bottled water may be a short term solution. If you can satisfy most of your needs with bottled water while the contamination is being cleaned up, then you gain a good deal of protection. In addition, baths may actually safer than showers if your water is contaminated. You need to find out how the contamination is coming into your home and ask how best to protest yourself. Ultimately, you have to get your family away from the contamination and demand the quickest possible solution. When I represented families with private wells who found out their drinking water was contaminated, I demanded and got the polluter to finance piping clean water from another community into their homes. Without a lawyer, these families would not have gotten clean water.
This brings me to the most important question of all: Do I need a lawyer? The answer is yes. A good lawyer can help you sort through all these issues and get your questions answered. You should not have to tackle all the complicated scientific and legal questions involved by yourself, especially when the polluter has its own team of scientists and lawyers working against you. You need a lawyer who really understands how to get answers to your questions, how to create the leverage you need, and how to build a case for you. In fact, one of the first things you should do when you find out you have been exposed to contamination is research and find a good environmental lawyer who can go to bat for you and get your family protected.