A toxic legacy is fought out in court

Scott Tong Jul 2, 2012

A toxic legacy is fought out in court

Scott Tong Jul 2, 2012

Tess Vigeland: A subsidiary of oil giant Anadarko is preparing to defend itself in court this week. Plaintiffs in the case just finished laying out their case in New York. They’re demanding $25 billion as compensation for alleged toxic pollution at hundreds of chemical sites around the country. A small town in northeastern Pennsylvania is among those seeking redress for a suspiciously high rate of cancer.

Scott Tong has more from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk.

Scott Tong: In teeny-tiny Avoca, Pa., the thing to do is sneak into the old chemical site right behind the baseball field.

Baseball player: Ah, one more. I gotta get a good one. Coach, can I pitch BP? Please?

A hole in the fence leads to 35 acres of weeds, concrete slabs, a couple no-trespassing signs. The plant shut down 16 years ago. Forty-eight-year-old Michael Sable has been slipping in here for years.

Michael Sable: Oh god, you could sneak through the fence, climb on the ties. Everybody used to play on the ties.

“Ties” as in railroad ties. This town’s product was a bit player in the Industrial Revolution, which in these parts started with coal and songs like this:

“Coal Town Road” song clip: We get up in the black down the coal town road. And we hike along the track, where the coal trains load.

Coal needs freight trains, and tracks, which sit on railroad ties. Here in Avoca, workers took wood planks and soaked them in a black, chemical sludge to prevent rotting. They set ’em out to dry, and the kids came.

Sable: We used to jump on them. It was pretty neat. It was like a big fort, cause they were five-stories high. And as far as the eye could see, it was all railroad ties in here.

The place reeked. Everyone here talks about the smell.

Avoca residents: It smelled like moth balls. Almost like a burning tire. Like a rubbery chemical. The smell was terrific. Couldn’t stand it. Had to shut the doors and windows at night. You ever see how they burn them incense for Christmas, about 10 different blends together, put burning wood and some motor oil and transmission fluid? It probably smells like that when it burns. Ever walk on railroad tracks when they first put new ties in? It smells like that, but a million times stronger.

Talk of the plant always leads to talk of cancer. Michael Sable’s grandfather worked there — he died of lung cancer. His dad has throat cancer. His two best friends went to St. Mary’s school overlooking the plant.

Sable: One died in 2010, he died of lung cancer. And my other buddy Michael, he died in September 2011 of brain cancer. It’s just strange they are both dead now.

Child brain cancer occurs eight times more than the county average. Infant liver cancer — 20 times more. Birth defects, way above the norm.

Patricia Williams: Webbed toes, abnormal larynx, Down’s syndrome, short fingers or toes.

Toxicologist Patricia Williams of the University of New Orleans has done the local studies.

Williams: Cerebral palsy. Or they were born with teeth. Or born with cataracts. Or born with half a heart.

Town residents sued the company, which at the time was the oil and chemical titan called Kerr-McGee. Heard of it? Ever see the 1980s movie “Silkwood?”

“Silkwood” move clip: They’re trying to kill me. They want me to stop what I’m doing.

It’s based on a true story, about a Kerr-McGee whistleblower, played by Meryl Streep.

“Silkwood” move clip: They contaminated me, you know that? I’m so scared now.

She died mysteriously in a car crash. The old mayor of Avoca, Jim Haddock, thinks Kerr-McGee tried to threaten him. An anonymous caller once asked if he’d seen “Silkwood.” And then hung up. Haddock says Kerr-McGee kept changing its story while he was running the town: first the plant was safe, then they said it had environmental liability.

Jim Haddock: They had concern for grave liability. And all of a sudden they are saying now it’s clean. That’s a company that I can’t trust. They lied to me as mayor of this community.

The lawsuits have gone on for seven years. People here — and at other old Kerr-McGee sites around the country — say the company tried to skip out on paying medical claims. How? Kerr-McGee created a new company years ago called Tronox, which was responsible for all payouts. Tronox went bankrupt.

John Hueston, representing the plaintiffs, says it was all by design.

John Hueston: And at the time they spun off Tronox, Tronox was not solvent. It was doomed to failure. The company took what should have been monies set aside to redress harms like that and made it disappear.

Kerr-McGee denies any scheme. It says says Tronox failed because of the economy. Kerr-McGee is now part of the oil company Anadarko. Spokesman Brian Cain:

Brian Cain: Tronox’s situation was not at all unique in the challenging economic environment that resulted in the collapse of the housing market and the automobile industry. The collapse of those industries resulted in lessened demand for Tronox’s primary product.

Plaintiffs now want $25 billion in the case now in a New York court. If they win, some money goes to the victims, some to cleaning up old chemical sites like this one. If they lose, their lawyers say it’s probably the end of the line.

In Avoca, northeastern Pennsylvania, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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