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November 16, 2004

Posted 1:08 AM Eastern

A growing number of women (213) have filed lawsuits against the City of Chesapeake who believe their miscarriages or babies born with birth defects were caused from drinking Chesapeake's tap water. They also believe that city officials hid the truth from the public. These plaintiffs think that for years, city officials hid from the public the fact that Chesapeake tap water contained high levels of trihalomethanes (THMs), which studies have linked to miscarriages. City officials have denied any wrong doing.

Now they wait for a legal ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court. The stakes are very high here because the court's decision could make the city responsible for $1.8 billion dollars in damages according to City Attorney Ronald Hallman. Chesapeake is what's called "self-insured." This means that any lawsuit judgments or settlements would have to come from the general fund which is supplemented by property and sales taxes as well as other revenues. Should the plaintiffs in these lawsuits be successful, it would be a financial disaster for the city. Amounts sought by individuals in these lawsuits vary, i.e. $6 million in compensatory and punitive damages are being sought for one miscarriage, while one woman who lost two babies from miscarriages is seeking $11 million dollars. Another plaintiff is asking $16 million dollars because she had three miscarriages.

In 2002, a retired Portsmouth judge, Norman Olitsky, who presided over the lawsuits, ruled against the city on the issue of sovereign immunity. The question before the Virigina Supreme Court is whether or not the legal actions being taken against the city are �time barred� due to the two-year statute of limitation expiring ahead of the women when they filed their lawsuits. The other issue of paramount importance is whether or not the city has protection against certain lawsuits known as "sovereign immunity." Besides the sovereign immunity issue, the Supreme Court has to decide whether or not there is a valid claim of fraud, one of the key allegations which would extend the statute of limitations issue.

These lawsuits allege the City of Chesapeake �knowingly, recklessly, wantonly and/or negligently poisoned�� these women and their unborn babies. �Worse yet, the city attempted to cover up the problem by issuing inadequate and misleading information to the citizens of Chesapeake,� the lawsuit said.

Back in 1988, the citizens of Cheasapek were first warned about high levels of THM in the city's water supply. The city's health department director, Dr. Nancy M. Welch, informed the population that pregnant women "could face an increased risk of miscarriage should they drink water rom the Northwest River Water Treatment Plant. This public health bulletin from Dr. Welch said that water from that plant would contain these high levels of THM until completion of upgrades. The high levels of THM were finally reduced in 1999 when the reverse osmosis water treatment plant was finally opened.

Plaintiffs who filed these lawsuits in the spring of 2001 believe they were deliberately not told about the risks in a timely, responsible manner by the city. They accuse the city and it's officials of having full knowledge about the dangers regarding the high levels THM since at least the 1980s, possibly earlier, hid those real dangers and are guilty of a cover up.

Linda T. Argust, one of the plaintiffs, suffered two miscarriages while living in Chesapeake in 1998. She believes that everyone was kept in the dark on purpose. �It still hurts,� she said. �I think it was a cover-up, and I think money was the basis of it. It all comes down to dollars and cents. That�s why they tried to hide it.� Ms. Argust switched to bottled water, moved out of the area and has given birth to two healthly children.

The mayor isn't talking and the city attorney, Ronald Hallman, says he can't comment while the process is underway. He has hired private lawyers to represent the city and maintains that a settlement would be unlikely. �Our intent is to defend any litigation, as we feel the city has not done anything wrong,� Hallman said at the time the lawsuits were filed.

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Last week, the voters of Arizona approved Proposition 200, which according to Mexico's Foreign Relations Department in a press release following the November 2, 2004 election, the Arizona initiative would "foment racial discrimination and limit (migrants') access to basic services like health and education.''