PLANT CITY – Environmental crusader Erin Brockovich-Ellis will lend her star power to a public meeting scheduled for Feb. 1 at The Lakeland Center.

Brockovich-Ellis, environmental research director for the California law firm Masry & Vititoe, is set to join Jim Ross of McCurdy & McCurdy LLP to update plaintiffs on the status of a lawsuit against Coronet Industries.

The law firms represent nearly 1,000 residents and former Coronet employees who believe contamination from the phosphate processing plant has damaged their health and property values.

“It’s an opportunity to bring clients and other interested individuals up to speed on the case: what we’ve found thus far, what to expect in the future,” Ross said.

A nearly two-year investigation by state and federal agencies, launched in the spring of 2003, found numerous contaminants in water, soil and air in the vicinity of the plant and nearby abandoned landfills.

Some levels of pollution exceeded state and federal standards, but none were enough to make people sick, state health officials said.

Coronet representatives say there is no scientific evidence linking the plant to illnesses reported in nearby neighborhoods.

McCurdy & McCurdy specializes in toxic exposure, water contamination and other health-related litigation. The Arlington, Texas, firm teamed up with Masry & Vititoe after residents living near the Coronet plant complained of ill health, including cancers, respiratory ailments and reproductive problems.

The Lakeland meeting will mark Brockovich-Ellis’ first encounter with Coronet plaintiffs. The activist, immortalized by Julia Roberts’ portrayal of her in the 2000 movie bearing her name, did not attend a public forum in October 2003.

“Since the release of the movie, it’s been just impossible for me to have that foothold and involvement in a community,” she said. “But I’m at a place now, through my research and my schedule, where I can come and spend some time there.”

Brockovich-Ellis says she has been combing through thousands of Coronet documents, as well as statements from individuals who say they have information on activities at the plant over the years.

“There’s clearly been a large source of contamination, and it’s been ongoing for some time,” she said.

Health officials have said their tests provided a snapshot of what contamination is present now, and may not reflect what residents have been exposed to in the past.

Ross said the litigation research reflects a historical perspective that government agencies have yet to nail down.

“I think there’s been some misinformation disseminated regarding the extent of the contamination and the effects on the community,” he said.

There are too many unanswered questions for the government to declare the area safe, said Ross, who – like Brockovich-Ellis – believes government agencies have been misinformed by Coronet.

Coronet spokesman Tom Stewart said it is difficult to respond to “a blanket accusation.”

“All I can speak to is what the current situation is, which is we have responded to every request for information that the government has asked for, certainly since David Denner has been CEO,” Stewart said.

Denner took charge of the company a year ago, when its Japanese owners decided to close it, citing unfavorable market forces. Coronet ceased operations in March.

The company and environmental officials are assessing what needs to be done with contaminated material within the plant site.


Researcher Buddy Jaudon contributed to this story. Reporter Jan Hollingsworth can be reached at (813) 754-3765.