Whisky companies could face legal action for damages totalling hundreds of millions of pounds, according to an American lawyer representing residents who blame the industry for blackening their homes.
William F McMurry has flown into Scotland for a public meeting tomorrow in Bonnybridge, near Falkirk, to discuss a “class action”-type court case on behalf of residents who claim their property has been discoloured by “whisky fungus”.
Residents say black mould stains their homes and anything left outdoors, and fear it will reduce property values in the area.
Mr McMurry says he has “rock solid” scientific evidence the damage is due to ethanol being released from Diageo’s whisky warehouses in Bonnybridge and Tullibody, Clackmannanshire.
Balfour+Manson has been instructed by residents to pursue a group claim in court for damage to property and the Edinburgh-based firm has teamed up with Mr McMurry, who has filed a similar suit against five distillers, including Diageo, in Kentucky.
Mr McMurry, president of the American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys, said many areas in Scotland are affected and insisted other whisky makers will face similar claims, possibly totalling up to £500 million.
“The technology exists to capture the ethanol and convert it into CO2 and water vapour,” said Mr McMurry. “It is not terribly expensive and does not affect the taste of the whisky. The companies are not using this, they are not being good neighbours. These companies are enormously wealthy and can withstand financial knocks. There is a big gorilla in this industry and they have not chosen to be socially responsible.
“I expect the lawsuits will bring about compensation for those folks that struggle to pay every year to have their homes and cars cleaned, and also see the value of their homes diminish. I am coming to Scotland to help people suffering from this problem, and I intend to help anybody who seeks my help.”
According to Mr McMurry, the problem of whisky fungus has been around as long as the industry – but it was not until 2007 that Canadian researchers linked the blackening with the fungus Baudoinia, which germinates on ethanol – the colourless alcohol which evaporates during the distillation process. He said samples of whisky fungus from Bonnybridge had been found to contain Baudoinia after tests in Canada. “This is a watertight case,” Mr McMurry insisted.
David Short, a partner with Balfour+Manson, said: “We have the hard scientific evidence to prove the link between emissions from the warehouses and the black fungus growth, which will allow us to properly advise the residents of Bonnybridge.”
Resident Thomas Chalmers said: “This is a great community, but since moving here I feel as though I’ve been in battle with the whisky fungus. It is unpleasant, unsightly and has blackened properties. I feel frustrated, angry and I’m concerned the blackening may drive down property prices.”
A Diageo spokesperson said continual research into its processes had found no direct link between ethanol and “a complex range of naturally occurring microflora at warehouse sites”, adding that the same microflora are present widely across the UK.
“If there is a change to the scientific evidence, the industry would consider the most appropriate, proportionate and effective way forward,” he added.
In the USA, Diageo and other companies facing a class action said they will “vigorously contest” the cases and blame the blackening of some buildings and structures on a naturally occurring common mould found widely throughout the environment – including in areas unrelated to whisky production.
Tomorrow’s meeting is at Bonnybridge Primary School in Wellpark Terrace from 6:30pm.