In a decision Thursday that could chill the activities of nonprofits and community activists who speak out against corporations, a Dona Ana County jury awarded the company $75,000 in punitive damages. The company claimed that public presentations by Uribe utilized unsubstantiated imagery to represent Helena's operations, including images of disasters.
Uribe says that he plans to appeal the ruling because he believes that what he said about the company is true.
Helena Chemical, based in Tennessee, is a distributor of chemicals for agricultural, turf, forestry, landscaping and aquatics markets. The company maintains a warehouse in Mesquite, New Mexico about 30 yards from Uribe's home where chemicals are received, mixed and sold to farmers and ranchers.
In early 2004, the New Mexico Environment Department first inspected Helena's warehouse, and later that year, the state issued a Notice of Violation against Helena for operating its plant without an air quality permit. In 2005, the state agency fined the company $233,777 for failure to comply with New Mexico's air quality laws and regulations.
But in 2006, the company failed to report a 500-gallon spill of liquid fertilizer within 24 hours as required by law and was fined $30,000.
In November, 2007, NMED issued another notice, citing 15 violations of Helena's air quality permit and in September 2009, the company agreed to pay $208,331 in fines to settle these citations.
A Helena Chemicals warehouse (Photo courtesy Helena Chemicals)
"Helena must pay a considerable penalty for violating state air quality laws that any responsible business owner would find reasonable to follow," said NMED Environmental Protection Division Director Jim Norton at the time. "We will continue to monitor the company to ensure its operations do not endanger residents or the environment."
In October 2008, two months before Helena's suit against him, Uribe and 22 other community members filed a lawsuit in state court alleging that emissions from the chemical company's warehouse in Mesquite were sickening local children, who suffered respiratory infections, asthma, chronic bronchitis and nosebleeds.
In December 2008, Helena Chemical Company sued Uribe in New Mexico's Third Judicial District Court in Las Cruces for defamation and injury to the company's reputation.
Uribe's attorney Linda Thomas said after the verdict on Thursday that Helena's suit against Uribe was filed to silence her client who had repeatedly reported information to the New Mexico Environment Department.
Thomas said the state agency had investigated the facility, found violations and levied fines against Helena. "To us, this was a clear, malicious abuse of process," she told the "New Mexico Independent." "They had filed the suit to shut him up."
In its verdict, the jury said that Uribe had defamed the company, by stating the company caused health impacts, including cancer and birth defects, and had the potential to cause explosions.
The jury also agreed with the company that Uribe harassed employees verbally, by following them with a video camera, and by interfering with the company's ability to communicate with the public about the nature of its operations and environmental performance.
"This ruling is very important to Helena and our neighbors - it was only without interference from Mr. Uribe's pattern of lies that we were able to discuss the true nature of our operations," said Louis Rodrigue, vice president of Southern Business Unit for Helena.
"We had the opportunity to provide factual information to a jury in open court and they agreed that Mr. Uribe has been spreading falsehoods about our operations and injured our reputation," said Rodrigue. "The truth is Helena is not adversely impacting air quality, drinking water quality or the health of the citizens of Mesquite."
Facility manager Jeff Elmore said, "This case was about stopping malicious lies that have caused harm and we are moving forward. We are confident we can have a healthy dialogue with our community and openly discussing legitimate concerns."
But Thomas believes that the verdict will have nationwide importance for activists on all sides of the political spectrum. "This decision is going to have a chilling effect on everyone in the country, on anyone who might want to stand up against polluters in their community, or meet with other community members to talk about concerns."
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