A Neighborhood of Poisoned Dreams
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.
Lawyers eventually signed up 18,477 plaintiffs, including children who had moved away, people who had fished in the creeks, and people had who lived outside the city limits.
The lawyers delivered alarming news. In 1969, the Anniston plant had been discharging PCBs into Snow Creek at an annual rate of more than 91,000 pounds, according to internal documents that emerged in litigation. By the next year, the company had reduced its discharge to about 5,800 pounds a year. In 1971, Monsanto stopped producing PCBs at the plant.
With the lawsuits on the horizon, Monsanto had spun off its chemical operations to an independent new company, Solutia, which would shoulder liabilities connected to the Anniston plant.
The company has never admitted fault in the PCB contamination case, said a Solutia spokesman.
“While we don’t dispute that individuals have a variety of illnesses,” said Glenn Ruskin, “there has never been a definitive study that would demonstrate a link between the PCBs and any of the health claims they’re making.”
David Carpenter, a scientist who testified for plaintiffs in the state case against Monsanto, said west Anniston residents had exceptionally high PCB levels.
Carpenter, professor of environmental health at the State University of New York at Albany, said the pollution in Anniston was so much worse than Love Canal -- the New York state neighborhood notorious for its chemical contamination -- that “there’s no comparison.”
Lawyers in the federal case were prepared to argue that PCBs had caused a range of illnesses, including cancer, and caused mental suffering and property damage.
For the homeowners, the beginning of the litigation was a thrilling, emotional time. Beverly Carmichael, a preacher, signed up for the federal suit, Tolbert vs. Monsanto, in October 2000, when a friend knocked on her door and told her it was the last day. Her excitement grew when she learned Cochran would become involved. The single time she met him in person, Cochran asked Carmichael to write down her medical history for him. She found a piece of paper and began scribbling.
It was, she said, a truly inspiring moment.
“Johnnie Cochran gave you your life back,” said Carmichael, 38. “He gave winos hope. He gave drug addicts hope. He gave people hope that never had hope.”
The moment they were all waiting for came in August of last year, when the Cochran firm announced a landmark settlement for both the state and the federal lawsuits of nearly $700 million -- the largest-ever settlement in a toxic tort case. In a news release, Cochran noted that the amount was twice the award in the case that was the basis of the movie “Erin Brockovich.”
“This settlement is a result of our efforts to fulfill those promises we made to the thousands of Anniston residents we met with two years ago,” Cochran said in the release. “This case was truly a labor of love.”
When attorneys in both cases decided to settle, the state case had prevailed in court but the federal case had not yet gone to trial, said Robert Roden of the Birmingham firm Shelby, Roden & Cartee. Attorneys rushed because Solutia threatened to declare bankruptcy, jeopardizing awards altogether, he said.
About $75 million would go to a cleanup effort, and each group of plaintiffs would split $300 million. The 3,500 plaintiffs in the state case have received settlements in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
All too aware of the awards their neighbors had received, federal plaintiffs were keenly disappointed to hear the news: Once the lawyers receive their fees, the awards for these plaintiffs will be much lower -- an average of $7,725, according to the fund administrator. A $25-million health clinic will also be constructed with money from the settlement.
The average figure is deceptive, said Jere Beasley, a plaintiffs’ attorney in the federal case. Many plaintiffs will receive many times that amount, and others who are less deserving will receive only $500, he said. Awards will be based on blood tests, state of health and the length of time the plaintiffs lived or worked near the plant.
“I don’t think there’s any way anyone should know whether they’ll be disappointed or not,” said Beasley, founding partner of the Montgomery firm Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, which received $34 million for its work on the federal suit.
Beasley said his law firm had devoted nine lawyers and 50 other staffers to the case. And, he added, each client had signed a contract that laid out the lawyers’ fees.
Trial lawyers work on a contingency basis, so they take great financial risk when they face off against corporate attorneys receiving $500 or $600 an hour, said Carlton Carl, spokesman for the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America.
“The contingency fee is the great leveler,” said Carl. “The least economically powerful person can take on the most richest, most powerful corporation in the world on an even footing.”
Roden said was saddened by his clients’ dissatisfaction, which was brought home forcefully, he said, during three community meetings where they “blasted him.”
“It’s serious, and sad,” he said. “I’m real sorry for the people there. I wish I could say something to soothe their feelings.”
Richard Freer, an Emory University law professor, said judges were increasingly responsible for determining whether plaintiffs’ attorneys treated their clients fairly. He called lopsided settlements -- which “line the pockets of the plaintiffs’ lawyers without doing as much for the plaintiffs” -- the most serious issue in complex litigation today.
Today, west Anniston is a place where only the Solutia plant -- “Applied chemistry, creative solutions” -- seems to be open for business.
Across the street from the plant, a chain-link fence cordons off the old Mars Hill Missionary Baptist Church, which was deemed too contaminated for worship. Down the road, the Lucky 7 Lounge is shut down, and a sign for the long-closed Top of the Line Auto Repair has been bleached out by the sun. Every second or third house is still inhabited, by people too poor, or too old, to think of moving, said Carmichael, a member of an advisory committee that is monitoring the settlement.
“You’re stuck in a community that you can only die in,” said Carmichael. “You’re stuck, and your children are stuck.”
Somehow, the thing that gets to Brenda Crook the most is her hair, thinned from cancer treatments.
“I’m angry at Monsanto,” said Crook, 50. “I’m very angry and disappointed in old Johnnie Cochran. If I saw him right now, I think I’m going to slap him down. He needs to come here and give us our money back.”
For Chandler, the experience reminds her of being romanced -- and then dumped. She remembers home visits from lawyers and investigators, who asked her to go through old Polaroids to find pictures of her brother, strutting barefoot in better days.
“That $7,000 doesn’t even cover my brother’s funeral bill,” Chandler said, sadly. But, she added, at least her lawyers did send flowers to the service.