Lawsuit Updates: GateHouse & Farm Bureau 

BY CLARE HOWARD

A settlement was reached last week in a class action lawsuit against GateHouse Media by Massachusetts newspaper subscribers over special surcharges billed for “premium edition” sections inserted into the regular newspaper.

Plaintiffs charged that GateHouse failed to properly disclose specific surcharges tagged onto regular newspaper subscriptions.

GateHouse Media owns the Journal Star which also publishes “premium edition” sections and does not bill separately for a regular subscription and the charge for “premium edition” sections.

According to the Massachusetts lawsuit, GateHouse Media allegedly charged customers $2 per issue for the “premium edition” but rather than clearly billing them for the supplement or allowing them to decline the supplement, the newspaper simply shortened the subscription period for which customers had paid.

GateHouse Media disputes the allegations made in the Massachusetts lawsuit and is not required to admit any liability under the settlement of the class action. The settlement covers all people in Massachusetts who, between April 1, 2014, and March 21, 2017, purchased a subscription to a GateHouse Media publication and received one or more “premium edition” publications. Additionally, these subscribers were not billed separately for the “premium edition” but had the expiration date of their newspaper subscription shortened to cover the cost of the “premium edition.”

In another case, the Des Moines Water Works sued the drainage districts of three northwestern Iowa counties over high levels of nitrates contaminating Raccoon River, the source of drinking water for 500,000 central Iowa customers. Farmers who do not follow organic, sustainable practices add nitrogen fertilizer to their fields. Nitrates run off in rainwater and contaminate ditches, streams and rivers, ultimately resulting in the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Des Moines Water Works has to pay $1.5 million a year to reduce nitrate levels in water in order to make it safe to drink.

The lawsuit was long, bitter, costly and secretive. It was not clear who was paying the litigation fees on behalf of the three counties named in the lawsuit, a cost estimated at more than $1 million for one county alone. The answer was finally unearthed by a small twice-weekly publication, the Storm Lake Times, circulation 3,000. The answer earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize.

In announcing the prize several weeks ago, the Pulitzer board said the paper’s tenacious reporting “successfully challenged the powerful corporate agriculture interests in Iowa.”

The newspaper reported the secret funder of the defendants was the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Iowa Corn Growers. A federal judge has since dismissed the lawsuit contending water quality is an issue for the Iowa legislature, not the Des Moines Water Works. A bill is in the Iowa legislature seeking to dismantle the independent board of the Des Moines Water Works that filed the lawsuit.

In Peoria, Illinois American Water Company must remove atrazine, a weed killer, from drinking water. Atrazine is applied on industrial corn fields throughout central Illinois.  Like nitrogen, atrazine runs off farm fields and contaminates streams, rivers and lakes. A class action lawsuit over atrazine in municipal drinking water was litigated for more than a decade against the manufacturer, Syngenta. In an out-of-court settlement, Syngenta agreed to pay more than $105 million to municipal water systems that must incur the cost of removing the weed killer from drinking water. Atrazine was banned in the European Union more than a decade ago but is still widely used in the United States.

Syngenta was recently purchased for $43 billion by China National Chemical Corp.

Neither the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit nor the Syngenta class action lawsuit resulted in the elimination of toxic farm chemicals running off farm fields and ending up in public drinking water.

 

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