Puerto Rico Family Sues Baxter For $50 Million

A family that owns land near a Baxter International plant alleges their property was contaminated with radioactive cobalt.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- A family that owns land near a plant operated by U.S. drug and medical device maker Baxter International has sued the company for $50 million, alleging their property was contaminated with radioactive cobalt and other potentially hazardous materials.

The Serracante family in the mountain town of Aibonito leased the 12-acre (five-hectare) site to Baxter as warehouse space for about 18 years until 2005, and later, after the company canceled the contract, determined the groundwater beneath it had been contaminated, their lawyer, John Nevares, said Monday.

The suit alleges that Baxter discharged wastewater contaminated with ethyl acetate, toluene and Cobalt-60 from a chemical laboratory on the site of its Aibonito manufacturing facility, where the company makes tubing and connectors used in the administration of IV fluids and medications.

"They were supposed to give it back to my clients in the condition they gave it to them, free of contaminants," Nevares said. "The Serracantes cannot do anything with this property ... with those contaminants at those levels. The property is useless."

Baxter filed court papers Friday to have the case moved from the local court in Aibonito to U.S. federal court. A judge has not yet ruled on the request, which Nevares said he may oppose. The original suit was filed Aug. 31 in Puerto Rico.

Baxter, based in Deerfield, Illinois, denied wrongdoing in court papers.

"The allegations upon which plaintiffs base their meritless claims will be denied and disproved at the appropriate procedural juncture," the company said in its request to relocate the lawsuit.

A company spokeswoman, Deborah Spak, said Baxter used the property to store raw materials, finished products and to park trailers and employee cars. She said the allegations in the suit stem from a contractual dispute that began when the company vacated the property.

"We believe that the plaintiff's allegations are inaccurate and unfounded, and that the suit is without merit," Spak said in an email.

Baxter's website touts the environmental record of its facility in Aibonito. The company says the plant has significantly reduced its energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, waste generation and disposal and "has long been a strong environmental, health and safety performer."

The company agreed to pay a $15,000 fine imposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008 for inadequately testing irradiation equipment at the Aibonito facility. In 2004, the commission fined Baxter$44,000 for several violations at the same plant, including failure to follow safety procedures designed to protect workers from radiation exposure.

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