Contaminating Small Communities Appears as a Pattern for Kerr-McGee

According to a Lawsuit Filed By the Gibbons Law Firm

The following was issued today by the Gibbons Law Firm: High rates of cancer, birth defects, childhood cancers, respiratory disease, neurological conditions and numerous other health problems. It's a high price for a small community to pay for the environmental contamination resulting from one company's corporate negligence.

Is this a tragic, isolated incident? Apparently not, say hundreds of residents of Columbus, Mississippi; Bossier City, Louisiana; and Avoca, Pa. They have filed lawsuits in three different states against industrial giant Kerr-McGee. One case was filed in Columbus in March, and the others were filed in Avoca and Bossier City on Oct. 22 and 23. These cases have been added to the list of numerous related lawsuits previously filed against the company for environmental contamination.

While miles apart geographically, the communities of Columbus, Bossier City and Avoca, have a few interesting similarities. They are all primarily small rural communities, and all three have high percentages of ethnic populations. These communities also have very similar high rates of some of the same types of cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems. According to attorney Jim Gibbons of Scranton, Pennsylvania, this last alarming similarity is the direct result of one other shared characteristic--the operation of a Kerr-McGee wood treatment facility in their communities. "Throughout its history, this company has exhibited blatant disregard for the welfare of residents in the communities in which it operates," says co-counsel Christopher Munley. "For decades, Kerr-McGee has released hazardous waste into the environment, leaving behind a tragic legacy of contamination and disease."

Kerr-McGee is a worldwide company based in Oklahoma City. Their wood treatment plants operate in the company's Forest Products Division, which provides treatment for about 40 percent of the railroad crossties in the United States. Up until the mid-1970s, PCP (pentacholorphenaol) and creosote, were used to treat the wood at the Columbus plant. The use of PCP was discontinued, and coal-tar creosote is now the most widely used wood preservative in the United States. Creosote was the substance used in the treatment process at the Bossier City and Avoca plants. Environmental contamination can occur at numerous stages of the process. PCP and creosote contain substances that are toxic to humans, and additional toxic substances are produced throughout the treatment process. These chemicals include, but are not limited to dioxin, lead, chromium, benzene, furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phenol, naphthalene and cresols. According to representatives of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, these toxic substances have been improperly handled and disposed of for years in Kerr-McGee's facilities, contaminating the air, the soil, surface water and ground water in the surrounding communities.

Baton Rouge attorney Burton Leblanc states that the contamination in all three sites occurred continuously over decades, beginning as early as the 1920s in Bossier City and Columbus, and the 1950s in Avoca. All three facilities are similar in structure and followed the same process to treat wood. The Columbus site is still in operation. Those in Bossier City and Avoca have both been closed for several years now, following EPA and DEP investigations. However, neither site has ever been treated, or remediated, by the company to remove hazardous contamination. The Columbus facility is currently under EPA investigation. The EPA has recommended discontinuing the use of creosote to treat wood crossties. Additionally the Scientific Panel of the EPA reviewing the health hazards of creosote in 1984 admonished the industry's "denial of scientific data concerning the mutagenicity and carcinogenicity of the wood preservatives." In spite of this, the railroad industry, several years ago, successfully lobbied for its continued use in crosstie treatment.

These lawsuits allege that drips, spills, leaks, accidents, air emissions and waste disposal practices through the years have led to widespread contamination of the plant sites and neighboring communities. Uncontrolled releases of waste liquid by the plants occurred onto surface soils and into surface waters. At all three sites, large, open ditches were used for years to transport waste products from the plants to nearby waterways. During numerous floods throughout the years, the ditches overflowed their banks, spreading the contamination into the neighboring yards of residents.

Extensive environmental investigation by recognized experts in the fields of medical toxicology provide strong evidence supporting the allegations made in the lawsuits. A lead scientist, Dr. James Dahlgren, is a medical toxicologist who earned national recognition as the medical expert in the case publicized in the movie Erin Brockovich. He and his team spent months studying the health effects of environmental chemical contamination resulting from the operations of the Kerr-McGee facility in Columbus. Participants in his study completed a health questionnaire and medical history forms, gave DNA, blood and urine samples, and underwent an entire organ system study. A control group from a community of similar socioeconomic background but not in proximity to a wood preserving plant was also included in his study. In Dr. Dahlgren's opinion, the results were conclusive: exposure to the chemicals released from the Kerr-McGee wood treatment facility in Columbus poses serious health risks. Residents living in close proximity to the plant had a cancer rate higher than that of the control group. Other significant health problems resulting from exposure include skin rashes, respiratory diseases and neurological disorders.

Another leading expert, Dr. Pat Williams, director of the Occupational Toxicology Program of the Department of Medicine at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, completed an in-depth study of an abandoned wood preserving site called Lincoln Creosote in North Louisiana. Her study found clusters of leukemia and other cancers in areas adjacent to the treatment facility. Additionally, Dr. Williams found a statistically significant marked increase in birth defects in babies born to children who lived and played in neighborhoods near the contaminated site. She concluded that these and other health problems prevalent in the surrounding community were the direct result of hazardous waste contamination from the plant. More recently, surveys by Dr. Williams identified the same types of health problems in both Bossier City and Avoca.

In addition, both the EPA and other independent studies have documented similar site contamination at wood preserving facilities across the country, along with associated health problems.

"The actions of Kerr-McGee demonstrate a pattern of environmental irresponsibility that will affect the quality of life of residents in Columbus, Bossier City and Avoca for years to come," says attorney Mike Nast, co-counsel from Lancaster, Pa. "What this company has done to these communities goes beyond oversight, beyond negligence," he continues. "They must be held accountable for their actions."

Gibbons Law Firm

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