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Company Polluted Nitro, W.Va., with Dioxin, Lawsuit Says

For more than 50 years, the Monsanto Co. plant in Nitro churned out herbicides, rubber products and other chemicals.

Dec. 20—For more than 50 years, the Monsanto Co. plant in Nitro churned out herbicides, rubber products and other chemicals.

Most of that time, the Monsanto plant also generated dioxins, highly toxic chemical byproducts that were discharged into area water, air and land.

Today, the plant is closed. Workers are tearing down the production units, storage tanks and chemical pipes.

At the same time, Nitro-area residents are concerned that their community has been contaminated with unsafe levels of dioxin.

On Friday, a group of the residents filed a lawsuit against Monsanto and related companies over that pollution.

Virdie Allen and 14 other current or former residents filed the suit. They seek to have it declared a class action on behalf of more than 25,000 current or former residents.

Officials from Monsanto did not return phone calls Friday afternoon.

Already, Monsanto was being sued by a group of Heizer and Manila Creek residents who claim their property was polluted by the dumping of dioxin wastes by the company.

In December 2002, the state Supreme Court blocked those residents from suing Monsanto to recover the costs of future monitoring of their property for contamination.

The residents had sought to expand the court's 1999 "medical monitoring" ruling to also allow suits to force polluters to pay for property monitoring.

In the new suit filed Friday, Charleston lawyers Stuart Calwell and Jim Humphreys target what they allege is a much broader ring of pollution across Nitro and the surrounding communities.

The suit, filed in Putnam Circuit Court, cites blood samples from some residents and dust samples from area attics that showed extremely high dioxin concentrations.

Dioxin has been linked to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, endometriosis, infertility and suppressed immune functions. The chemical builds up in tissue over time, so even small exposures can accumulate to dangerous levels.

According to the lawsuit, a contractor for the plaintiffs' lawyers found dioxin levels in indoor dust inside Nitro homes in concentrations ranging from 16.4 to 1,210 parts per trillion. The suit did not say how many homes were tested.

There are no regulatory standards for indoor dust for dioxins. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recommended cancer guideline is 4.3 parts per trillion. The state's cleanup trigger for residential soils is 3.9 parts per trillion.

"The indoor dust concentrations found in the test houses exceed both these outside soil standards by a substantial margin," the lawsuit said.

"These empirical data indicate that substantial portions of the communities in the vicinity of the plant are in fact contaminated," the lawsuit states. "Biological testing ... reveals that the general population of the aforesaid communities is at significant risk for elevated body burden levels of the aforesaid dioxins."

The lawsuit states that "the plant site, due to prevailing winds and natural topography, is located at the center of a wind and topographically defined arc within which the deposition of contaminated dust and fumes escaping ... the plant property fell upon and otherwise entered and contaminated plaintiffs' real estate."

In the suit, Calwell and Humphreys also seek to pierce the efforts of Monsanto to shed itself of any liability for pollution of the Nitro area. They also hope to avoid having that liability wiped out as part of a bankruptcy proceeding for one of Monsanto's successor companies, Solutia Inc.

Starting in the late 1990s, St. Louis-based Monsanto — now called Old Monsanto — engaged in a complex series of spinoffs, name changes and corporate buyouts to distance itself from potentially massive environmental liabilities.

In 1997, Monsanto officials renamed one of their subsidiaries, Queeny Chemical Co., as Solutia Inc.

"Solutia was created by Old Monsanto insiders as the vessel into which Old Monsanto and the named defendants sought to concentrate their liabilities arising from the environmentally ruinous historical conduct of Old Monsanto at its various Chemicals Division operations throughout the United States, including Nitro, W.Va.," the lawsuit states.

Old Monsanto, however, did not transfer all operations, assets and liabilities to Solutia. The company's agricultural business was not transferred. The pharmaceutical and nutrition businesses were, likewise, retained by Old Monsanto.

As part of the chemicals division, the Nitro plant was distributed to Solutia.

But, the plant was also host to Monsanto's agricultural division operations involving the production of the herbicide 2,4,5-T for the military to use in making the defoliant Agent Orange.

"As such, the liabilities arising from the Nitro 2,4,5-T production unit did not transfer to Solutia," the lawsuit states.

Also named as defendants in the case are the related companies Pharmacia, Akzo Nobel and Flexsys.

Solutia is in bankruptcy. All civil actions against it are stayed while that bankruptcy is sorted out. Solutia was not named as a defendant in the case.

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© 2004, The Charleston Gazette, W.Va. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.