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A Neighborhood of Poisoned Dreams

Lawsuits over the effects of PCB contamination gave hope to residents of Anniston, Ala. But the settlements have created new bitterness.

April 13, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

ANNISTON, Ala. — When the lawyers arrived in Anniston, joy spread like shivers from one front porch to the next.

Finally, someone was interested in Anniston's west end, a poor neighborhood where for decades toxic chemicals had leaked into the soil. There were solicitous phone calls from lawyers at 8:30 in the morning, all-expense-paid trips for medical tests at lawyers' request and the sudden promise that a lawsuit would lift their burden.

There was Johnnie Cochran -- to most of them, the most famous lawyer in America -- visiting from Los Angeles to hear their stories.

In the shotgun houses here, tentative dreams poked up: Brenda Crook, 50, dreamed of plastic surgery to cover the hole that cancer dug in her leg, so she could wear skirts again. Elsie Stoudenmire, 68, dreamed of moving out of this poisoned neighborhood -- a neighborhood full of widows -- and never looking back.

All those dreams have soured. Late last month, lawyers in the federal lawsuit announced the disbursement of a settlement, an award of $300 million. In an agreement approved by the court, the 27 lawyers will split $120 million, with Cochran's firm taking about $29 million and a Montgomery-based law firm getting $34 million.

The announcement ended with a punch line: Once the lawyers and other expenses are paid, the awards for each of the Anniston plaintiffs will average $7,725, though some will receive more if their health damages are shown to be greater.

The news has brought a fresh wave of anger through the west end of Anniston, an industrial city of 24,000 in eastern Alabama. Plaintiffs complain, with barely suppressed rage, that their lawyers are greedy. They have also become venomous toward each other; some have stopped telling their neighbors how much they have received. Environmental activist David Baker, who spent six years helping arrange litigation on PCB contamination, has received death threats from plaintiffs who are certain that he has gotten rich.

"Everybody's angry," said Baker, founder of a grass-roots environmental group, Citizens Against Pollution. "No amount of money could ever satisfy the people of Anniston. There has been too much death."

Pat Tobin, a spokeswoman for the Cochran firm, said Cochran was unavailable for comment.

It is a painful twist in a saga that has attracted national attention because of the gravity of the contamination, and because its victims were not warned of the risks until the mid-1990s, more than 20 years after the dangers of PCBs were known. The chemicals are thought to cause cancer and have adverse effects on immune, reproductive and nervous systems.

The Monsanto Co. plant was sited amid a scattering of foundries and factories in Anniston. Originally built to manufacture shell casings for the Army during World War I, the plant in 1929 began producing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs -- fire-resistant chemicals used to insulate electrical equipment. Monsanto bought it in 1935.

People in the mostly black west end lived in the country way, catching their own fish, raising hogs and eating cabbages from kitchen gardens behind their homes.

"It was like Mayberry," said Tommy Dulaney, 37, who raised a child in a house facing the plant. "They'd sit around and shoot the breeze on lazy summer days."

One of those people was Denise Chandler's father, who was illiterate and worked washing chemical residue out of 50-gallon drums.

In a curio cabinet, Chandler, 47, still has the gold-plated watch the company gave him to commemorate 25 years of service. It's engraved with his name: George Washington.

The Washingtons arranged their lives around the plant. On holidays, they laid down quilts and picnicked in the open meadow beside the Monsanto building. In the mornings, to get to school, all six children took off their shoes and waded up to their knees through the stream that ran past the factory.

The littlest one, Manuel, always had to be nagged to get out of the water, even when it ran thick with slime. He liked to catch turtles.

Chandler tells the story in her fluting voice: How Manuel "blanked out" and went into seizures at age 9. How doctors took a spinal tap and reported "unknown toxins" in his body. How by his late 30s, he was so weak he could not lift his hand to feed himself. How Manuel, completely blind, was overcome by psychosis and saw monsters coming for him at the end. He died of heart failure last year at a nursing home, at the age of 40.

The autopsy report listed his cause of death as "acute PCB intoxication in long standing" that damaged his pancreas, liver, kidneys and brain, Chandler said.

It was lawyers, finally, who connected the dots for people like Chandler. In 1996, attorney Donald Stewart filed a lawsuit in state court involving 3,500 clients.

Activist Baker mobilized the community to file a second lawsuit in federal court and sought out Cochran.

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