D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine (at podium) announces a lawsuit against chemical manufacturer Velsicol during a press conference on Oct. 13. Environmental justice advocates from NAACP DC, the Sierra Club and Groundwork Anacostia River DC also spoke in support of the suit.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine (at podium) announces a lawsuit against chemical manufacturer Velsicol during a press conference on Oct. 13. Environmental justice advocates from NAACP DC, the Sierra Club and Groundwork Anacostia River DC also spoke in support of the suit.

Attorney General Karl Racine is suing chemical manufacturer Velsicol Chemical, LLC over pollution in the District’s waterways that primarily impacted Black and low-income Washingtonians. At an October 13 press conference, Racine said that Velsicol spent decades selling a pesticide it knew caused cancer.

“[Velsicol] marketed it as being safe and effective,” Racine said. “That’s a lie that hurt people over ‘generations, and that hurt our natural resources.” 

Velsicol manufactured chlordane, a chemical used to kill insects, from 1945 until the EPA banned it in 1988. The suit alleges that Velsicol knew chlordane caused cancer as early as 1959. 

The pesticide was marketed for and used to control pests both outdoors and inside homes. The lawsuit claims that as of 2016, 21 of the city’s 38 miles of rivers and streams were out of compliance with water quality standards for chlordane. The attorney general said at the press conference that sampling by the Department of Energy and Environment had uncovered chlordane hotspots in the Anacostia River, including at Poplar Point, a site across the river from Nationals Park. 

Velsicol did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Environmental justice leaders from the NAACP DC, the Sierra Club, and Groundwork Anacostia River DC spoke alongside Racine at the press conference, praising the lawsuit and the attorney general’s focus on holding polluters accountable.

“Environmental justice is a civil rights issue,” NAACP DC President Akosua Ali said. “The long-term impacts of this chemical manufacturer releasing these toxic, cancer-causing chemicals into the Anacostia has had disproportionate health impacts on lower-income Black residents in D.C. So today, the NAACP is proud to stand with Attorney General Karl Racine to emphasize that polluting our water with toxic cancer-causing chemicals and poisoning our wildlife will not be tolerated.”

Shortly after chlordane was banned, D.C. issued a fishing advisory, telling District residents to stop eating catfish, carp, or eel from the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, partly because of high chlordane levels. The attorney general’s complaint against Velsicol notes that low-income and Black communities were more likely to catch and eat fish from the river.

Both of the District’s major rivers have suffered from high pollution levels, and both have improved significantly in recent years (in some places, it is even safer to swim). But for decades, D.C.’s most toxic industrial projects were sited along the Anacostia River, leaving dirty, dangerous water to flow through Black neighborhoods. Only after more than 30 years of community activism—and multiple environmental lawsuits, both from the District and from organizations like Earthjustice—has the Anacostia begun to revive.

“When companies lie and mislead for money, the best way to hold them accountable is for money,” Racine said. “That’s what they care about.”

Racine’s office has successfully nabbed a number of companies for pollution in the District, including household names like Monsanto and Greyhound. In 2020, the attorney general sued Exxon Mobil, B.P., Chevron, and Shell for “systematically and intentionally misleading District consumers about the role their products play in causing climate change.” That suit is ongoing. 

Racine’s term ends in early January, but he said he expects the next attorney general to continue emphasizing environmental justice and accountability for polluters. Brian Schwalb, who won the Democratic primary for that office and received an endorsement from Racine, lists “safeguarding the environment” as one of six priorities on his website. 

“This lawsuit sets a precedent for how the D.C. Office of Attorney General should definitely be weighing in on environmental justice issues,” Ali said in an interview after the press conference. “This is a start.”

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