When Sylvia Paderez finally moves next month from her home in West Covina to Chino Hills, she hopes to forget BKK Corp.'s toxic-waste dump and the adverse effects she believes it has had on her life.
She wants to forget about skin rashes that still plague her son. She wants to forget the miscarriage she suffered in 1984, seven years after she moved into her home less than a mile from the dump. And she wants to forget that another child was stillborn in 1985 and cremated on Christmas Day.
Paderez said an autopsy on the stillborn fetus mentioned exposure to a toxic waste site as a possible cause of death.
"I don't know if you ever put it behind you," she said.
Paderez is one of 507 neighbors of the dump who last week began signing individual agreements, completing a legal settlement with BKK Corp., said Catherine M. Graham, one of the attorneys who represented the residents.
The residents had brought lawsuits against BKK seeking $100 million to $150 million in compensation for alleged health, safety and other problems related to the landfill. Last month, BKK and the residents reached a tentative agreement, which combined 13 suits and capped five years of litigation.
Although terms of the settlement have not been disclosed because of an agreement by both sides, three residents said they had been told that the settlement totaled $40 million.
Graham said that Herbert Hafif, who led the team of lawyers for the residents and is vacationing in Switzerland, had authorized her to say that he could neither confirm nor deny that the suits were settled for $40 million. But a source close to the settlement said the figure was more than $40 million.
Two residents said the attorneys' fees totaled 40% of the settlement.
Variations in Settlements
According to two residents, the individual cash settlements varied, depending on whether residents owned or rented their homes and how long they had lived near the dump.
Graham said the individual awards ranged from less than $5,000 for a renter who had lived near the dump for about four months to "high in the six figures" for a homeowner who had lived near the dump for several years.
BKK officials would not comment on the settlement figure.
When the agreement was reached in December, Rene Tatro, an attorney representing BKK, said that his client was pleased with the settlement.
"The fact that BKK was willing to settle is a reflection of its social conscience," he said. "My client has devoted a great deal of time and energy to doing the right thing."
Attorneys involved in the settlement would not reveal how much of the money will be paid by BKK and how much will be paid by the landfill's insurance companies.
Robert Kilborne, another attorney who represented the residents, said he expects the residents to receive payments by June.
He also said the accord stipulates that residents who signed the agreement waive their rights to all claims against BKK "up to the present time and in the future as long as the dump is maintained."
However, the settlement does not prevent children who are now under 18 from suing BKK in the future for any alleged problems related to the dump, Graham said.
Like many of the residents, Naomi Torres is worried about her children.
'What Is Their Future?'
"I have two kids," said Torres. "What is their future?"
She said her daughter has developed allergies since the family moved near the dump seven years ago, and her niece developed asthma while living with the Torres family for three years.
"We don't know if it's because of BKK," she said. But Torres added that the family will move from their home now. Like other residents, Torres said that the lawyers advised her not to move until the suit was settled.
"Finally, it's over," she said. "But at the same time, I think 'What's coming? Is the money worth it?' I think money isn't worth it when your health is in jeopardy."
Paderez, the mother of two, said several people "felt that the settlement was unfair. They had a loss of life. I did too. But at the same time, I didn't know the baby."
"But other people lost their husbands and wives to cancer," she said. "For those people, there's no way that money will bring those dead people back and there's no way that justice will be served."
Doralee Nelson, who rented a home less than a quarter-mile from the dump, shares Torres' sense of unease about the future.
"I just feel lucky that I'm not dying," Nelson said. "I didn't even think we were going to get money. Everybody's just happy that we found out about the dangers before we died."
Nelson added that she thought the settlement should have been higher. "Five years from now, who knows what's going to happen?"
For Dagmar Miller and her mother, Herta Miller, the past is more painful than the uncertainty of the future.
Died of Cancer