W.Va. Residents Sue DuPont Over Zinc Plant Contamination

September 12, 2007

From its grassy surface, the 112-acre mound seems harmless, a vast but benign-looking field ringed by hundreds of small homes.

But signs wired to the chain-link fence hint at something potentially sinister lurking beneath. “No Trespassing,” they warn. “Contaminated materials cleanup in progress.”

Covered a few years ago with clean soil and sod, it is the site of a zinc-smelting plant that in 90 years produced more than 4 billion pounds of slab zinc and 400 million pounds of zinc dust, materials used in rustproofing products, paint pigments and battery anodes.

As many factories did before federal regulations stopped them, various owners dumped waste materials on the ground – in this case, waste loaded with arsenic, cadmium and lead.

Now 10 property owners are suing DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical makers, and several other companies they claim ruined their homes and property values, and put their health at lifelong risk.

On Monday, Harrison County Circuit Judge Thomas Bedell will try to seat a 15-person jury for the class-action lawsuit, which demands long-term medical monitoring, property damages and punitive damages for thousands of people in and around Spelter.

The trial, which could start Tuesday, is expected to last four months and feature expert witnesses who will debate the relative dangers of the contamination, who’s responsible for it and whether plaintiffs who are not ill deserve routine medical screenings.

The case targets DuPont; New York-based T.L. Diamond & Co. and its longtime plant manager Joe Paushel; Nuzum Trucking Co. of Shinnston; and two defunct companies, Matthiesen & Hegeler Zinc Co. Inc. of Illinois and Meadowbrook Corp. of West Virginia.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say a range of health problems could develop, some of which take decades to manifest: neurological impairment; lung, skin, kidney and stomach cancers; damage to the heart, liver, kidneys, bladder and other internal organs; hypertension; diabetes; and decreased fertility.

DuPont has set aside $15 million to deal with the lawsuit, according to an Aug. 1 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “Given the uncertainties inherent in litigation,” it warns investors, “there can be no assurance as to the final outcome.”

In court documents, however, DuPont and the other defendants deny wrongdoing and refuse to acknowledge the contaminants threaten public health.

T.L. Diamond ran the plant from 1975 to 2001, and many of its employees developed the respiratory disease pneumoconiosis. It was under Diamond that regulators recommended the site be declared an imminent and substantial threat to public health.

DuPont, which has been involved with the property since 1899 when it bought the land for a gunpowder mill, reassumed ownership when the zinc plant shut down in 2001. In that sales agreement, DuPont assumed responsibility “for the past, current and future environmental condition of the real property.”

DuPont argues, among other things, that the plaintiffs “knowingly exposed themselves and their property to risks of harm,” that “some or all of the injuries alleged in the claims … resulted from acts of God,” and that potential health problems are “too remote and are unforeseeable” to deserve medical monitoring and cannot be definitively linked to DuPont.

Jimmy Greynolds, 34, is inclined to agree. He’s lived in Spelter 20 years and has a hillside home overlooking the site where he once worked for a year, pouring liquid metal into the furnace.

“I remove asbestos for a living, so it doesn’t bother me,” he says. “It’s just a fact of life. It’s been there forever.”

Jean Sartoris, who moved to Spelter in 1962 with her coal miner husband, calls the lawsuit “ridiculous” and points to her healthy 94-year-old neighbor, a man who spent most of his life at the plant.

“As you get older, you’re going to have problems. That’s common,” says Sartoris, now 72. “A lot of people develop heart ailments as they get older. A lot of people develop diabetes as they get older.”

Smoking and drinking cause more problems than pollution, she says.

Sartoris, whose back yard borders the site, scoffs at claims that plants won’t grow, pointing to her brilliant impatiens, healthy magnolia tree and two blue spruces that tower over the back yard.

“I don’t worry, and I don’t think anybody else should,” she said.

There were minor nuisances, of course. Sartoris says that when the plant was operating, she couldn’t hang baby diapers on the clothes line because of the dust. The wood frames and glass in her windows became pitted over time and had to be replaced.

But all things eventually need repaired.

“DuPont has been so good and so generous to this community,” she said. “I just can’t understand why anyone would want to do this.”

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