A $9.5 million settlement reached this week could bring thousands of dollars to some East Hill property owners to compensate for pollution believed to have seeped beneath their land from a Superfund site.
On Tuesday, Circuit Court Judge Joel Boles gave preliminary approval to a settlement in a class action suit that alleges that pollutants from the former Agrico Chemical Co., a fertilizer plant in central Pensacola, filtered into groundwater and migrated southeast toward Bayou Texar and Pensacola Bay. The site is now owned by ConocoPhillips.
Boles’ action allows claims administrator RG2 of New York to contact the approximately 5,000 property owners in the affected area and offer them participation in the settlement. A second hearing before Boles is set for Sept. 4 to finalize the settlement.
Each of some 2,500 property owners in areas where the pollution is believed to be the worst are expected to receive between $2,500 and $3,000. Another 2,500 property owners in nearby areas are to receive between $150 and $250 each.
The checks could be sent by Christmas.
“It’s very important to Pensacola to hold companies like Agrico/Conoco accountable, especially when this plume continues to migrate in the groundwater,” said Nathan Bess, an attorney with the Pensacola law firm of Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholtz, which filed the suit in 2008.
“It’s not a complete solution. The chemicals are still in the water. But at least the property owners are given a much more fair shake in terms of being compensated.”
Mike Patterson, an attorney with the Pensacola firm of Emmanuel Sheppard & Condon that represents ConocoPhillips, did not return a call seeking comment on Thursday.
The Agrico plant, where a variety of chemicals and fertilizers were manufactured, is located on 35 acres at what is now the northwest intersection of Fairfield Drive and Interstate 110.
The facility was open from 1889 to 1975. The site was added to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list in 1989.
The suit alleges that the Agrico facility allowed dangerous chemicals such as radium, nitrates, fluoride, chloride and sulfates to seep into the groundwater and flow beneath the impacted area.
Alleged damage from the contamination includes diminished property values, loss of property use, and illegal storage of the chemicals in the groundwater flowing under the owners’ property.
“It really boils down to you having the right to use and enjoy your property,” Bess said.
“You have the right to have a confidence and ease of mind that your property is safe to use. You should have the right to dig an irrigation well if you want to. You should have the right to fill up your swimming pool with water from an irrigation well and have some confidence that it’s not going to be toxic to your children.”
In 2004, another lawsuit reached a $70 million out-of-court settlement to compensate some 3,000 property owners closer to the plant and north of Cross Street.
Artie McGraw, who grew up in a home on Jordan Street where he returned about a decade ago, said he is satisfied with the settlement. His home is in an area included in Tuesday’s settlement.
“The agreement is fair,” said McGraw, who is an attorney but not acting as counsel in this case. “I think it was a compromise for both sides to prevent a protracted trial and a lot of expense — a lot of time and money.”
Who gets it?
The settlement agreed to Tuesday establishes two settlement areas, the Thomas Sub-Class and the Rabin Sub-Class. Those include about 2,500 parcels each. Of the total $9.5 million, about $7 million is reserved for compensation payments.
The Thomas Sub-Class — so named for plaintiffs Michael and Patricia Thomas — is bordered by Cross Street to the north, Davis Highway to the west, East Brainerd Street to the south and Bayou Texar in the East. Those are the property owners who will receive roughly $2,500 to $3,000 per parcel.
“The Thomas Sub-Class is where our experts are confident with a reasonable degree of certainty that the plume is there in significant levels,” plaintiffs’ attorney Nathan Bess said.
Property owners in the Rabin Sub-Class, named for plaintiffs Samuel and Jacqueline Rabin, will be recipients of the $150 to $250 checks.
The Rabin Sub-Class hugs the west side of the Thomas Sub-Class, also bordered on the north by Cross and on the west by North Palafox Street. Its edge doglegs east on East Wright Street and turns south on Ninth Avenue, ending at Pensacola Bay.
“The Rabin Sub-Class is an area where there is a level of uncertainty about the presence of the plume in that area or where it could migrate in the foreseeable future,” Bess said.