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Attorneys have filed lawsuits in three states against Kerr-McGee, claiming that environmental contamination from its facilities have contributed to higher rates of cancer, birth defects, childhood cancers, respiratory disease and other illnesses in areas of Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Louisiana.

The first case was filed in Columbus, Miss., in March 2001. The others were filed in Avoca, Pa., and Bossier City, La., on Oct. 22 and 23.

Kerr-McGee operated wood treatment plants in Columbus, Avoca and Bossier City. The company provides treatment for a large percentage of railroad ties in the United States.

Until the 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.

According to the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, environmental contamination can occur at numerous stages of the wood treatment 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.

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, claim the plaintiffs, 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.

As a result, claim attorneys, the three communities involved in the lawsuits have very similar high rates of some of the same types of cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems.

"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."

Not true, says Peter Nickles, of the the Washington, D.C. law firm of Covington&Burling. Nickels is an attorney for Kerr-McGee.

"There is no evidence showing that anyone in [those] communities has been harmed," claims Nickels in an interview with Occupational Hazards. The company has employees who lived and worked in those communities and Kerr-McGee would not do anything to jeopardize their safety, he adds.

He said the company intends to "vigorously defend" itself. Baton Rouge attorney Burton Leblanc says 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, according to Leblanc. The Columbus site is still in operation. Those in Bossier City and Avoca have both been closed for several years.

The plaintiffs hired Dr. James Dahlgren, a medical toxicologist who earned national recognition as the medical expert in the case publicized in the movie "Erin Brockovich," to help prove their case.

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 expert for the plaintiffs, 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. She also 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.

"Junk science," claims Kerr-McGee attorney Nickels. "We''ve filed motions to have Dahlgren excluded as an expert witness."

Calling the allegations in the lawsuits "outrageous," Nickels adds, "Rather than just file the lawsuit and let the facts or alleged facts speak for themselves, they''re trying to poison the community against us."

As for the plaintiffs, they claim that 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."

by Sandy Smith