Vapor defendants agree to settlement and to go after other polluters

Steve Korris Sep. 15, 2006, 5:06am

Premcor Refining Group and Shell Oil affiliate Equilon Enterprises have agreed to pay $8 million to Hartford residents living above an underground petroleum lake that formed from the operation of the community's big oil refinery.

In settling a proposed Madison County class action suit, Premcor and Equilon have also agreed to cooperate with local residents in suing other oil companies.

Hartford residents and property owners suffer on account of the lake because rainfall pushes vapors into homes and other buildings.

Circuit Judge Daniel Stack granted preliminary approval to the settlement Aug. 28. He set a fairness hearing Jan. 11.

The schedule gives Stack a few months to resolve a battle of law firms over the right to represent Hartford citizens.

In 2003 a team of attorneys from St. Louis and Kansas City proposed a class action suit against Premcor and other companies that owned and operated the refinery.

They proposed to certify Katherine Sparks as representative of the class.

In 2004 the Mark Goldenberg firm of Edwardsville filed a similar suit, except that Goldenberg represented individuals rather than a proposed class.

In 2005 Stack certified the Sparks suit as a class action, but two defendants asked him to reconsider. Stack decided that he would reconsider.

That swung the advantage to Goldenberg. His attorneys dropped their individual claims and started negotiating a class settlement with Premcor and Equilon.

When the Missouri attorneys learned of the talks, they protested that Goldenberg could not negotiate for the class that the Missouri team sought to represent.

The Missouri attorneys asked Stack for an immediate ruling on certification of their class, but Stack did not grant it.

Equilon and Premcor reached an agreement with the Goldenberg firm.

They agreed to pay $3.5 million, minus legal fees, to owners of property that lost value. They agreed to pay $3.5 million, minus legal fees, to anyone the vapors displaced. They agreed to pay $1 million, minus legal fees, for medical expenses.

Their plan would split Hartford in two.

Those on Hawthorne Street or north of it would calculate a payment according to a formula and would receive the full amount.

Those on First Street or south of it would apply the formula and receive an eighth of the result. With proof of special circumstances they could get the full amount.

The settlement would stretch back to 1984. Anyone who had sold property in Hartford since 1984 could submit evidence of a loss on the sale.

Displaced persons could claim $250 per week of displacement. Displaced businesses could claim $500 per week.

Anyone who suffered illness or injury would qualify for 100 percent reimbursement of medical bills up to $5,000, and 80 percent reimbursement up to $25,000.

Any leftover funds would enhance payments to property owners. If less than $10,000 remained, the local Parent Teacher Organization would get it.

Premcor and Equilon offered something else possibly worth millions.

Premcor agreed "to provide testimony regarding liability of other defendants" in the Goldenberg firm's suit from 2004.

Equilon granted Goldenberg access to "technical personnel for frank discussions."

Equilon and Premcor authorized "candid conversations" with their personnel about the United States Attorney General, the Illinois Attorney General, and the environmental protection agencies of the United States and Illinois.

Because Goldenberg intended to press claims against others in his suit from 2004, he could not incorporate the settlement into that suit.

In August his firm filed a new suit, with Harry Goforth and Ruth Goforth as lead plaintiffs. Stack's preliminary approval applies only to that case.

Meanwhile the Missouri attorneys have not abandoned hope. In August Stack granted a motion allowing one of their plaintiffs, Dennis Bedwell, to intervene in the new suit.

The Goldenberg firm asked Stack to reconsider.

On Sept. 6, attorney Virginia Stevens Crimmins of Kansas City urged Stack to stick to his order allowing Bedwell to intervene.

Crimmins asked why the settling parties were so anxious to avoid scrutiny.

She wrote, "Discovery is appropriate here given the suspicious circumstances leading up to the filing of this case."

"Premcor and Equilon agreed to the settlement almost ten days before the complaint was filed.

"This court cannot simply take these parties, and their counsel, solely at their word concerning the fairness of the proposed settlement, because their own self-interests in seeing this deal approved surely limits their respective ability to be objective despite what may otherwise be their best intentions."

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