Florida Residents Seek $500 Million in Superfund Lawsuit

April 22, 2010

Residents of a neighborhood on the edge of a polluted Florida Superfund site have sued the property owners, seeking at least $500 million to decontaminate their homes and monitor their health.

The so-called Cabot/Koppers Superfund site covers about 140 acres a few miles north of downtown Gainesville. The site was home to a now-defunct charcoal production business and a wood treatment plant that began operations in 1916. That business also recently shut down.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the area a Superfund site — a label given to 1,279 hazardous waste sites nationwide — in 1984 because of poor waste disposal that contaminated water and soil with known carcinogens such as arsenic, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and creosote compounds.

Cleanup there began in 1985.

In the lawsuit filed this week in federal court in Gainesville, more than a half-dozen plaintiffs claim toxins from the site have contaminated their homes within a two-mile radius of the property. They are suing two Pittsburgh, Pa.-based companies — Koppers Inc. and Beazer East Inc. — along with Boston, Mass.-based Cabot Corp. They are seeking class-action status for up to 25,000 people.

The lawsuit claims the chemicals are creating an “elevated risk of contracting serious latent diseases, disorders and harm to the physical health and well-being” of the residents. In addition, the complaint claims the contamination has caused home values to plummet.

Koppers spokesman Bob Oltmanns referred questions to Beazer, which he said bought the site earlier this year. Telephone messages left for officials at Beazer and Cabot Corp. were not immediately returned on Tuesday. The EPA says it has spent about $4 million to date on the site. It was unclear how much money the companies have paid.

Gainesville spokesman Bob Woods said the city has spent $2 million so far to study the extent of water contamination to the region’s underground aquifer.

“There are real concerns about contamination of our water supplies,” Woods said.

Until earlier this year, residents say they thought the contamination was limited to outside their homes in the area’s water and soils. Private tests completed in February, however, indicate the toxins are airborne and have accumulated in dust and sediment in their houses, they claim.

Sandra Kennedy, 46, who lives about a block from the site with her husband and 10-year-old daughter, said her family moved in about eight years ago, but always thought they were relatively safe inside their home.

“We always thought the worst of it was outside,” Kennedy said, adding that dust in her home recently tested at more than 1,000 times higher for toxins than is deemed safe.

“We’re very worried,” she said. “We have ourselves a valueless home … We need to get our daughter away.”

The suit seeks damages to pay for decontaminating homes and to fund a program to monitor the health of every resident in the coming years. One of their attorneys, Stuart Calwell, says it would cost at least $500 million.

“The contamination in these houses far exceeds any sort of level recognized by agencies as being suitable for human habitation,” Calwell said. “The homes basically have become toxic crucibles.”

He said cleanup efforts have only focussed on water around the site.

“No efforts have been undertaken to remediate soil,” Calwell said. “No efforts have been undertaken to do a comprehensive testing of indoor environments.”

Calwell said residents are not seeking damages for any current or past illnesses they believe were caused by toxins from the site, but merely want the property owners to clean their homes and monitor their health for future ailments.

“We’re seeking a remedy for the present harm to property. In other words, we want it cleaned up,” Calwell said.

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