DOUGLASS — A federal court judge’s ruling this week will allow two farmers who claim a local chemical plant caused deformities in their dairy cows to pursue a trial.
Farmers Wayne and Suzanne Hallowell of Bechtelsville and Merrill and Betty Mest of Schwenksville in August 2001 filed a civil suit in Montgomery County Court against the Cabot Corp. and the Cabot Performance Materials plant on Holly Road, contending the plant emitted toxic amounts of fluoride into the air, poisoning cattle and causing many problems on their Douglass (Mont.) farms.
Boston-based Cabot Corp. and Cabot Performance Materials, a government-licensed manufacturer of chemicals and metal products, attempted to have the case thrown out on the grounds that a statute of limitations had expired.
Judge Cynthia M. Rufe of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on Monday denied Cabot’s request for summary judgment against the Mests and the Hallowells.
Summary judgment is when a defendant asks a judge to decide a case on the spot, due to a presumed lack of evidence.
“Cabot filed a motion saying (the Mests and the Hallowells) waited too long to file their complaint. They were basically saying (the farmers) should have known sooner,” said Michael Davis, one of a team of Norfolk, Va., lawyers representing the farmers. “The judge said there are genuine issues of material fact regarding when the statute of limitations commenced running.”
The ruling means the case will proceed in federal court. The Mests and the Hallowells are seeking court costs and attorneys’ fees in addition to at least $300,000 in damages from Cabot. No trial date has yet been set.
“We’re very pleased with that ruling,” Davis said.
A call to Cabot’s lawyers, Manko, Gold & Katcher in Bala Cynwyd, was not returned Friday.
Brad Okoniewski, a spokesman for Cabot, was unable to comment on the specifics of the case.
“We still maintain the same position — that we’ve been a good neighbor and will continue to be a good neighbor to the Boyertown community,” Okoniewski said.
Wayne Hallowell doesn’t remember Cabot being such a good neighbor.
“Cabot said that we should have known their chemical company operations were harming our cattle since 1976,” he said.
Hallowell’s 121-acre Congo Road dairy farm lies about a mile east of the Cabot plant. Mest’s farm is about 4 miles east of the plant.
In the lawsuit, the farmers claim pollution from Cabot — toxic fluoride emissions in particular — is emitted from smoke stacks and migrates to the farms where it is absorbed by plants that are subsequently eaten by livestock, making them sick.
The farmers contend that Cabot officials knew about the fluoride pollution as early as the late 1970s, and participated in studies of fluoride pollution emanating from the Holly Road facility.
The farmers testified they were unaware it was fluoride pollution that was causing their troubles until an expert diagnosed their animals with fluoride poisoning in December 1999 and January 2000, respectively.
A 1999 EPA report acknowledged high levels of fluoride in Hallowell’s well water, but said the elevated levels were not sufficient to cause genetic problems with cattle or pigs.
The final results of the report, released in March 2000, said Cabot was not at fault for the farmers’ problems, which could have been caused by poor farming practices.
Since the report, the Hallowells have made plans to sell the farm that has been in their family since the 1950s to developers.