Hartford trustees stir litigation pot with new suit

Steve Korris Jul. 18, 2008, 7:48am



Hartford village trustees, who for years watched outside lawyers represent the entire village in lawsuits over pollution from refinery operations, have suddenly decided that they too can represent the entire village.

The trustees sued 22 oil and pipeline companies in Madison County circuit court July 15, blaming them for a "toxic plume" of gasoline and petroleum waste under the village.

The suit includes Shell Oil subsidiary Equilon and Clark Oil successor Premcor Refining, whose owners thought they had settled all claims in the village.

On July 15, Circuit Judge Daniel Stack approved a settlement in which Equilon and Premcor agreed to spend $16 million in Hartford.

Now Equilon, Premcor and other defendants face new claims, or at least similar claims from a new plaintiff.

The village seeks economic damages for lost use of property, lost profits, diminution of property value, loss of enjoyment, impairment of salability, and "stigma damage."

The village also seeks an injunction requiring remediation of the toxic plume.

The claims overlap with those already before Stack, and to compound the confusion Stack won't handle the village's suit.

Chief Judge Ann Callis assigned it to Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron.

Stack has struggled for years to resolve a multitude of clashes over the pollution.

He certified a class action suit for attorneys from St. Louis and Kansas City in 2005, but granted reconsideration.

While he reconsidered, Mark Goldenberg of Edwardsville converted a group of individual clients into a class and reached an apparent settlement.

Over objections from the Missouri lawyers, Stack granted preliminary approval of Goldenberg's settlement in 2006.

Before Goldenberg could win final approval, the settlement collapsed.

Stack ordered mediation, and prospects looked bright last year when Goldenberg and the Missouri team stopped feuding and agreed to cooperate.

As mediation continued, however, cooperation among the defendants broke down.

Equilon and Premcor agreed to settle, but British Petroleum and Sinclair Oil protested that Equilon and Premcor intended to recover their costs from BP and Sinclair.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency stirred the mixture by suggesting that BP should clean up the pollution and recover the cost from everyone else.

Now Hartford trustees have added a new ingredient to the mixture.

Village attorney Rene Bassett Butler excused the village's late arrival in court by accusing defendants of lying and cheating.

"Defendants have engaged in a campaign of deception and fraud designed to hide the true nature, extent and effect of the toxic plume, so that the contamination continues to spread," Butler wrote.

Due to the deception, she wrote, "plaintiffs and the Hartford community have been prevented from taking action to fully protect their rights and property interests from the devastating effects of the contamination."

Defendants caused lower assessments of real estate in the village and decreased tax revenue, she wrote.

"Further, the actions of defendants resulted in increased costs of municipal services because of detrimental results from said contamination from the plume," she wrote.

Contamination has damaged sewers, streets and municipal buildings, she wrote, and it has increased water treatment expenses.

"Plaintiff has suffered a loss of economic revenue by the stigma of the toxic plume, in that developers are not as likely to locate in the village because of the perceived contamination," she wrote.

Prolonged rains cause liquids to leach and vapors to seep into basements, she wrote, and residents complain of respiratory difficulty and headaches.

Defendants have failed to abate the contamination, she wrote.

"Instead, the pollution continues and the residents of Hartford continue to suffer exposure to harmful vapors containing benzene, toluene, xylene, n-hexane and other volatile, toxic chemicals," she wrote.

"None of these defendants has done anything substantial to stop, clean up, or in any way remediate the toxic plume in order to stop its harmful effects," she wrote.

"Plaintiffs have suffered and will continue to suffer discomfort, anxiety, fear, worries, stress, and mental and emotional distress," she wrote.

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