WAIMEA — The red dust blew onto Susan Arquette’s property Monday like it had so many times before, ever since DuPont Pioneer began operating test fields 17 years ago on the bluff overlooking her neighborhood.
But this time the dust came down with a fresh twinge of irony.
Just three days earlier, a federal court jury awarded Arquette a portion of a $500,000 sum for property damage and loss of use and enjoyment of her home because of that dust. The verdict said DuPont Pioneer failed to follow generally accepted agricultural and management practices, resulting in the spread of red dust onto residential properties downwind of the farm.
The court case had been won. But Arquette said Monday’s red flurry is the perfect example of why she’s not yet relieved of her self-appointed “dust monitor” duty.
“It’s way better,” she said, “but on a windy day like yesterday it’s still the same. You get up in the morning and there’s dust all over the floor.
“I think the whole valley owns a Rainbow vacuum.”
And if Monday’s dust storm is any indication, Arquette said valley residents will still need them.
Arquette and her husband, Allen Arquette, are among the 15 Waimea residents awarded damages Friday as part of a bellwether trial. Theirs is a representative sample of a larger number of lawsuits filed in 2011 and 2012 against DuPont Pioneer. There are more than 100 plaintiffs who say the red dust from the seed company’s Waimea Research Center field caused extensive damage to their properties.
It’s unclear whether the other Waimea residents will be awarded damages.
Company officials are disappointed in the verdict and plan to evaluate their options in coming days, DuPont Pioneer spokeswoman Laurie Yoshida said.
The jurors found the “seriousness of the harm to each plaintiff outweighs the public benefit of Pioneer’s farming operation.”
The award for property damage for each resident was based on the square footage of the residents’ floor plans, which the jury used as a reference.
“The winning part is great, but they’ve got to change their practices,” said Arquette, a retired Waimea Middle School teacher. “Otherwise, we won, but for what?”
Arquette said she is happy with outcome of the trial, and hopes DuPont Pioneer will be more neighborly in addressing dust concerns from residents in the future.
So like any good neighbor would do, Arquette said she dialed a phone number for the DuPont Pioneer property manager Monday to report her concerns about that day’s apparent uptick in airborne dust.
She said no one picked up.
“All we wanted out of this is for them to have ears,” she said. “It is not the money. That is not why we did this. If you lived here, you would know what we’re talking about. It’s about people’s health.”
Perched in a plastic chair outside the three-bedroom ranch she’s called home for 29 years, Arquette on Tuesday recounted the troubles she said she’s had as a result of living downwind from her dusty neighbor.
“No stop cleaning,” she said. “All the windows stay shut now when we used to keep everything open for ventilation. All the time you are scared about what it’s doing to your health.”
Arquette said she thinks the dust is to blame for a number of health issues she’s experienced since DuPont Pioneer moved into her neighborhood, such as itchy skin and frequent bloody noses.
At the beginning of the trial, when residents alluded to health effects they link to the dust, U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi reminded their attorneys that the cases were about property damage, loss of enjoyment of property and emotional stress — not physical effects.
“Emotionally, it’s really draining,” she said. “I aged a lot because you just worry. You worry about your kids. When my daughters visit I say, ‘You can come, but only a few days.’ I just don’t trust this dust.”