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Recent UW law graduate works for clean water in Guatemala

Eric Harrison, a recent UW law alumnus, believes clean drinking water is a right people worldwide should share. When he heard the Dole Food Company had diverted a river in Guatemala for use on a banana plantation, leaving thousands without potable water, he took the food giant to court — and was able to negotiate a settlement.

After a year-long process, Harrison was able to fly to Guatemala with Dole representatives, leading the company to settle. Harrison was suing on behalf of his nonprofit organization, Water and Sanitation Health (WASH).

Dole agreed to work with Harrison on a clean water project for Guatemala in the future, but the full extent of the settlement details are confidential. He said that when they were able to speak face to face, representatives were very respectful and good to work with.

“Dole is a Fortune 500 company. For them to willingly go to their plantation with a guy that’s suing them is pretty unheard of,” Harrison said. “We were able to do that because I called them up and reached out to them and said, ‘Let’s work together.’”

Company representatives weren’t able to fly out until late 2012 because Dole had used outside council during the first year, making it difficult to contact them directly. They motioned to dismiss the case when it moved from King County District Court to the federal level, but Harrison defeated the motion in a legal volley that lasted from when the case was first filed one year prior in mid-2011.

“At the end of the day, they don’t want to be polluting anybody’s water, they don’t want to be hurting people,” he said. “They also need to make money … part of that is also providing clean water because they have a brand to protect.”

David Hancock, who had graduated from the UW School of Law the year before the suit was filed, represented WASH early in the case because Harrison was still in school and legally unable to represent his organization.

Hancock said he put them in a position to go to jury trial when courts denied Dole’s motion to dismiss, but lauded Harrison as the hero.

“Eric did a lot of the work,” he said. “Mr. Harrison has dedicated his career to providing safe drinking water to the people of the world.”

Steve Berman, partner at the law firm Hagens Berman, stepped in after Hancock. He decided the most effective plan would be to levy a class action lawsuit against Dole from citizens who were under the impression that the company was using environmentally friendly codes.

This allowed Harrison to reach out to Dole in the final months of the case, which ultimately led to the settlement.

Berman said this case showed how concerned citizens can accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.

“We brought fresh drinking water to a couple thousand people,” he said. “It’s a wonderful example of how the law can make a difference in the world, and Eric should be proud.”

Harrison is currently interviewing recent graduates to support his project in Guatemala for one year, which includes educational outreach, implementation of water filters, and water testing.

Reach reporter Alex Otsu at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @AlexOtsu

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