PLANT CITY – The century- old Coronet Industries plant is drawing more celebrity attention than this rural area of northeast Hillsborough County could have imagined.
But it isn’t the kind of publicity the chamber of commerce relishes in the winter strawberry capital of the world.
A month after California- based law firm Masry and Vititoe – made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich” – announced it would represent residents in an environmental lawsuit against Coronet, famed trial lawyer Johnnie Cochran was in town Wednesday night.
Cochran, known as a member of the “Dream Team” that won acquittal for O.J. Simpson in his murder trial, came to Plant City to encourage residents to provide information for a possible lawsuit against Coronet for alleged pollution that some residents claim has caused an abnormal rate of illness.
Coronet officials have said there is no evidence the plant is responsible for health problems.
The flamboyant 66-year-old lawyer used biblical terms to fire up an audience of about 250 people at the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He compared the legal battle against Coronet, owned by a Japanese conglomerate, to David and Goliath. “In many ways you will be a lot like David, but if you put on the armor of God … you can prevail.”
Cochran was in town at the request of Samantha McDonald, whose 42-year-old aunt died two weeks ago of an unknown cause. The autopsy results are not in. Her aunt lived in Oakview Estates near Coronet, McDonald said.
Cochran said his law firm three years ago was involved in an environmental lawsuit in Anniston, Ala., in which several industries agreed to a $700 million settlement. “I’m here to tell you, don’t lose hope,” he said. “We will do everything we can to seek justice.”
Outside Of Testing Area
Many of those at the meeting live in Plant City and are not within the quarter-mile radius of the Coronet plant where county and state agencies are conducting water and air pollution tests. Some said they believe pollution from the plant, south of the city limits, reaches the city and they might be interested in joining a lawsuit.
Others said they were there to learn and listen.
Following Cochran’s short speech, residents gave brief testimonials about their illnesses. Karen Bell, who has lived in Oakview Estates for seven years, said half her colon had been removed and that she had parasites in her stomach. “I feel Coronet is [the cause] of my illness,” she said.
Forms soliciting information about family health problems were handed out.
The Rev. Johnnie Cooper, president of the Plant City chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said before the meeting that wastewater from the plant runs in ditches through Lincoln Park, a neighborhood of mostly black residents in east Plant City. He said the city and Coronet have ignored for years complaints about alleged pollution. Henry Hunter, a Tallahassee lawyer who said he represents Cooper and about 200 others associated with the leadership conference, said, “I think racially they did not respond to the obvious contamination in the black community.”
Plant City Commissioner Michael Sparkman, a member of the board for 13 years, said Wednesday night: “I have no knowledge of that. That’s the first I’ve ever heard of it.”
Ron Bartlett, a spokesman for Coronet, said: “There’s simply no scientific evidence that the Coronet Industries plant is causing health problems in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. There is a major former landfill that lies between the plant and Lincoln Park.”
Masry Lawsuit Expected
In the meantime, Ed Masry, whose law firm employs environmental crusader Erin Brockovich-Ellis, met with more than 600 residents this month and said he expects to sue Coronet in about 60 days. A paralegal with his firm said Wednesday that the firm has signed up about 450 clients and receives 25 to 30 inquiries a day.
Health and environmental officials are reviewing complaints that people living near the plant are plagued with high rates of illness, including cancer. They have embarked upon a yearlong study to determine whether those fears are valid.
State officials said this week that 36 families are being supplied with bottled water after tests showed elevated levels of either arsenic, boron, lead, cadmium or radiation in their wells.
Recent soil tests found no elevated levels of contaminants, and air tests found contaminant levels similar to those elsewhere in the state.
Arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, fluoride and radium have been found in groundwater on Coronet property. The substances, known to cause cancer at certain levels of exposure, are byproducts of phosphate processing at the plant, which produces an animal feed supplement.