WINFIELD - A proposed settlement has been reached in a huge class-action lawsuit where Nitro residents say the chemical giant Monsanto unsafely burned dioxin wastes and spread contaminated soot and dust across the town, polluting homes with unsafe levels of the chemical.
In a hearing Thursday in Putnam Circuit Court, Judge Derek Swope raised several questions about the proposed agreement and how residents would be notified of it.
For more than 50 years, the former Monsanto plant churned out herbicides, rubber products and other chemicals. The plant's production of Agent Orange created dioxin as a toxic chemical byproduct.
The residents' lawsuit, filed in 2004, seeks medical monitoring for at least 5,000 - and perhaps as many as 80,000 - current and former Nitro residents.
Swope has scheduled a hearing at 1:30 p.m. today to further discuss the proposed agreement.
Before an agreement in a class-action lawsuit is finalized, the members of the class must be notified of the proposed settlement and given a chance to object to its terms.
On Thursday, Swope said he had a problem with the man Monsanto suggested to administer the medical monitoring program.
The man is a former defense expert for the company, Swope said. He suggested the same person who is overseeing the medical monitoring program for a Harrison County case, in which residents of the town of Spelter said a DuPont smelter exposed them to toxic materials.
The judge also raised a question about cleaning residences - something Thomas Urban, a Charleston lawyer who represents some Nitro residents, took issue with.
Swope mentioned terms in the proposed settlement suggesting a cleanup would take place over the course of three years, and 1,500 residences would be cleaned - 29 homes a week, six per day, 750 a year. The judge asked if that would be "feasible."
Urban asked why a cleanup was being included in the proposed settlement, when it was not part of the medical monitoring trial.
Both former Putnam Circuit Judge O.C. Spaulding and Swope, who was brought in from Mercer County last year to replace Spaulding on the case, issued rulings last year that threw out the class' property cleanup claims. As a result, if the case goes to trial, Putnam County jurors would only determine if residents should receive medical monitoring.
Lawyers for the thousands of residents and property owners in the lawsuit appealed the decisions by Spaulding and Swope. They say the rulings left a huge gap in their efforts to deal with the legacy of Monsanto's chemical-making operations.
If a settlement is not agreed upon today, a more extensive jury selection is scheduled to begin on Monday, Swope said. Six jurors and six alternates would have to be selected out of the 28-person jury pool.
Mediation efforts last October and December failed to produce a settlement.
Swope warned lawyers on Thursday that a gag order, preventing them from talking with the news media about the case, is still being strictly enforced.
The judge sealed all documents pertaining to the proposed settlement. He would not talk to a reporter after Thursday's hearing.
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