Chemical Engineering Expert Permitted to Opine on Paper Mill Pollutants and Odor

    Zach Barreto

    Written by
    — Updated on June 30, 2020

    Chemical Engineering Expert Permitted to Opine on Paper Mill Pollutants and Odor

    Court: United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, Monroe Division
    Jurisdiction: Federal
    Case Name: Sadler v. Int’l Paper Co.
    Citation: 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59422

    Facts

    This case involves alleged airborne pollution released from a paper mill. The plaintiffs all lived and worked nearby a paper mill and claimed that the mill released toxic chemicals into the environment. The plaintiffs also alleged that the pollution directly harmed their health. They sued the defendant, the paper mill owner, and asserted claims of private nuisance and negligence. The plaintiffs retained a chemical engineering expert witness to support their case.

    The Chemical Engineering Expert Witness

    The chemical engineering expert witness was an accredited chemical engineer with 40 years of experience. His work specialized in chemical engineering and environmental impacts. The defendant did not question the expert witness’s credentials as an expert in his field, rather, the defendant attacked the basis for his opinions. The defendants moved to exclude the expert’s testimony on a number of objections. Firstly, the defendant argued that the expert’s testimony that the mill’s pollution generated adverse health impacts was not based on any empirical impact assessment. Specifically, the expert did not model air dispersion or try to objectively measure or calculate atmospheric air concentrations of compounds released by the defendant’s mill. The plaintiff responded that the expert was not a medical professional and, thus, did not opine on the health impact of emissions. Instead, the plaintiffs claimed the expert’s views applied to the kinds of fuels used at the plant and their effect on the air.

    The defendant also argued the expert should not be able to testify on the mill’s usage of mixed fuels instead of natural gas as a money-saving choice that increased the harm to the environment. The defendant alleged this opinion relied on unsound analysis and a series of baseless conclusions. The defendant also sought to remove the expert’s claims on sulfur pollution from the mill, claiming the expert did not rely on any empirical data to support his odor opinion and made no odor measurement. The defendant alleged that the expert’s testimony on odors was focused on unfounded assumptions and conjecture. To this, the plaintiffs responded that the expert’s odor conclusion was relevant to their private nuisance argument as the defendant opted not to reduce sulfur emissions as a cost-saving mechanism. The plaintiffs contended that their expert appropriately opined that the defendant should have incorporated technologies to reduce its odor effects on the local environment, but did not.

    Finally, the defendant moved to exclude the expert’s argument that they had a legal duty to protect the environment from pollution. The defendant alleged the expert relied solely on two general sources— a chart from the EPA’s 1995 Sector Notebook Project, Pulp and Paper Industry, and a 1959 chemical engineering magazine article, which he admitted did not directly support his opinion. The plaintiffs replied that the expert’s assertion that the defendant had this special duty arose from the ethical responsibilities placed on all engineers and Section 2503(A) of Title 46 of the Louisiana Administrative Code.

    Discussion

    The court found that the expert could testify about fuel usage because he was a trained chemical engineer who applied scientific methodology that could help the jury determine issues of fact. The court also noted that the expert’s testimony on the odor generated by sulfur pollution was admissible because, as a chemical engineer, he could depend on knowledge already available in the paper industry. Therefore, he could reliably testify about technology to reduce sulfur emission and odor.

    However, the court also noted that the expert’s opinion on a duty to protect from pollution was not based on reliable standards, but just an obsolete notebook and an old article.

    Held

    The motion to exclude the chemical engineering expert witness’s testimony was denied.

     

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