Kan. Jury Sides with Oil Company in Pollution Lawsuit

January 9, 2008

Jurors sided with oil giant BP Corp. North America Inc. Monday in a pollution lawsuit filed by the city of Neodesha seeking to recover the costs of cleanup and damages caused by an oil refinery.

Jurors hearing the case in Erie reached their decision after fewer than three days of deliberations following one of the longest jury trials ever held in Kansas. The trial began in late August, with jurors hearing from 46 witnesses during 69 days of testimony. Deliberations resumed Monday following a two-week break for the holidays.

“We are shell-shocked. It was just like we were at a funeral. We just don’t understand what happened,” said Rochelle Chronister, a resident of the small southeast Kansas town and former state legislator who attended the announcement of the jury verdict and most of the trial.

Chronister said jurors did not give a reason for the verdict, but their attorneys were trying to interview jurors and see what happened.

“We have no idea what happened, what went wrong,” Chronister said. “Maybe it was too much money _ who knows. We are going to ask for some kind of remediation with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and BP and figure out what to do next.”

Neodesha demanded more than $423 million in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the 2,700 residents of the town. The massive lawsuit alleged liability for spills, breach of contract and fraud. They lost on all counts.

BP spokeswoman Valerie Corr said after the verdict that the company intended to continue the cleanup at Neodesha.

The contamination covers almost 70 percent of the town, including underneath City Hall, hundreds of homes and the community’s schools. Experts found groundwater pollution under 350 acres after the city spent $1 million to hire its own experts and drill test wells.

Besides the city of Neodesha, plaintiffs included the local school district, Neodesha Plastics Inc., Fiberglass Engineering, and property owners Anna Harshman and Wade Jones, who are acting as class representatives.

Named as defendants were BP Corp. North America Inc., formerly known as Amoco Corp.; BP America Inc.; BP Products North America Inc.; Atlantic Richfield Co.; and BP America Production Co.

The refinery operated from 1897 until it was dismantled in 1970 and the property was donated to the city.

The lawsuit contends the operation of the oil refinery and associated laboratories and storage facilities generated a variety of poisonous wastes, including benzene, toluene, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury.

Although some of the contaminants are known to cause cancer and other diseases, the lawsuit was not a personal injury case but instead sought property damages.

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