SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Agricultural workers who have long sought compensation for contamination from a pesticide banned in France but used in the country's Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe have finally had a day in court after a nearly 15-year wait.
Investigating magistrates in Paris held a videoconference hearing last month with representatives of consumer, farm and environmental groups gathered in a Martinique courtroom to determine how to proceed on a complaint that had languished since 2006.
"I have never given up," said attorney Harry Durimel, speaking in a phone interview from Guadeloupe. "This is a serious matter that merits everyone's involvement."
The complaint focuses on chlordecone, a pesticide also known as Kepone that was banned in the U.S. in 1976 following several notorious incidents, including the contamination of the James River in Virginia, and which is blamed for neurological problems including slurred speech.
French health authorities have expressed concern it could be linked to high rates of prostate cancer on the eastern Caribbean islands and some studies have suggested it may be linked to premature births.
It was legally marketed in France from 1981 until 1990 and was used for three more years in Guadeloupe and Martinique to fight the banana weevil under an exemption granted by the French government.
Durimel and other attorneys argue that exemption was illegal. The suit accuses the French government of failing to protect the health of its people and not doing enough to identify and limit the effects of chlordecone pollution on both islands, with a combined population of some 750,000.
"They poisoned us in silence," Durimel said.
France's Ministry of the Overseas did not return a request for comment.
Durimel said France considers the pesticide to be so risky that in October 2002, it ordered the incineration of 1.5 tons of sweet potatoes that arrived at the port of Dunkirk from Martinique because they contained chlordecone.
The pesticide degrades slowly, with some experts estimating that the pollution in Martinique and Guadeloupe will last for decades or even centuries after its ban.
In Martinique, authorities temporarily banned fishing in all rivers and some coastal areas in 2009 after finding nearly all fish sampled were still contaminated. U.S. studies in the James River found tainted fish decades after Kepone was banned.
French officials had earlier prohibited the sale of any goods containing chlordecone and ordered that all soil be analyzed before the cultivation of root vegetables. But the complaint says those measures were not enforced and did not carry heavy penalties. In 2002, authorities seized several tons of chlordecone in Martinique and Guadeloupe.
"In the end it appears that the state has failed miserably in its mission to protect public health," according to the complaint filed by Guadeloupe's Regional Consumers Union; SOS Environment Guadeloupe; the Agriculture, Society, Health, Environment group, and the Union of Agricultural Producers of Guadeloupe.
A 2015 article in the Environmental Science and Pollution Research journal summarized longstanding effects of the pesticide: "From 1999 to date, measurement of chlordecone in blood samples has revealed that a large proportion of the French West Indies population is still contaminated."
It noted that 88% of samples collected from 100 adult men in Guadeloupe in 1998 contained chlordecone, and in 2004, chlordecone was detected in 87% of 122 women who were pregnant in Guadeloupe and in 77% of breast milk samples.
Years later, a study from 2005 to 2007 in Guadeloupe, found chlordecone in 67% of 623 men diagnosed with prostate cancer, according to the article.
It expressed concern about exposure during pregnancy and infant development "and possibly long-term effects such as cancer."
France has made several efforts to fight chlordecone contamination, and the most recent plan, to be launched in the coming weeks, has a $112 million budget, triple that of the previous plan, according to French officials. Proposed measures for the next six years include analyzing tap water, taking blood samples and monitoring people's exposure levels. Officials also plan to map soils to identify the most contaminated areas.
But many activists remain unsatisfied, and the French government itself noted in a previous evaluation that multiple areas needed improvement,
The future of the slow-moving case isn't clear. The High Tribunal magistrates in Paris said some evidence has disappeared and suggested the statute of limitations might have expired on some alleged damage caused by the pesticide. No date for a follow-up hearing was set.
The plaintiffs' attorneys are demanding that officials find the missing documents and argue there is no statute of limitations in the case.
"While the complaint against the government doesn't specify possible remedies, Durimel said he envisions a fund to aid victims: "The goal is that those who polluted, pay."
Alfred Marie-Jeanne, president of Martinique's executive council, wrote French President Emmanuel Macron last month saying he was stunned by the report of missing evidence and a possible time limit on damages suffered by people in Martinique and Guadeloupe.
"They feel they have been betrayed by the state and abandoned by those who should have defended them," he wrote.