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The Associated Press May 31, 2012, 12:15PM ET

Judge gives preliminary OK to herbicide settlement

A federal judge in southern Illinois has given preliminary approval to a $105 million settlement between Syngenta and community water systems in six states over the presence of one of the Swiss chemical maker's popular agricultural herbicides in drinking water.

U.S. District Judge J. Phil Gilbert ruled Wednesday the deal in the nearly 8-year-old lawsuit over weed-killing atrazine "appears to be a good compromised result for the parties following years of hard-fought litigation" involving more than 10 million pages of documents shared between both sides.

The agreement, announced last week, could help reimburse nearly 2,000 community water systems that have had to filter the chemical from its drinking water or pay to test for it, Stephen Tillery, the St. Louis attorney behind the class-action lawsuit, has said.

The lawsuit was pressed by community water systems from at least a half-dozen states -- Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and Ohio -- that have sought to have the company reimburse them for filtering atrazine from their supplies.

As part of the deal, some 1,887 community water systems serving more than 52 million Americans may be eligible to make a claim, Tillery said.

With Gilbert's action Wednesday, notice of the settlement plan now must be sent to all those class members, with the judge to make a final determination on the deal Oct. 22 in Benton.

Syngenta said it agreed to settle the matter "to end the business uncertainty" and avoid further legal costs. Under the settlement, the company will continue to sell atrazine to U.S. corn growers and denies any liability linked to the chemical, which Syngenta said is used in more than 60 countries and has been marketed in the U.S. since 1959.

Research has shown runoff after rainstorms can wash the chemical -- used for decades to kill grasses and broadleaf weeds -- into streams and rivers, where it can enter drinking water supplies. The lawsuit claimed atrazine in drinking water can cause low birth weights, birth defects and reproductive problems, though the company has argued no one ever has or ever could be exposed to enough atrazine in water to affect their health.

The amounts eligible water systems may recover will depend on the levels and frequency of atrazine contamination they experienced, as well as the population served by each of them, Tillery said. Some 300 water systems with the highest contamination levels will be reimbursed all of their costs, he said.

Under the tentative deal, attorneys representing the water systems will share roughly $34.9 million in fees.

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