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Carson residents push for quicker payout of settlement in contamination case

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By Sandy Mazza, Daily Breeze: 5 August 2016

Carson officials signaled an end this week to a six-year court battle with two multinational corporations accused of secretly leaving a massive waste-oil dump buried just feet beneath 285 homes in the Carousel tract neighborhood for decades.

City leaders, who joined the lawsuit in 2012 to support residents seeking compensation for physical and emotional problems from longtime exposure to petrochemicals, agreed Tuesday to drop their complaint and approve settlements offered by Shell Oil Co. and Dole Food Co. totaling $120 million.

The city will not share in the payouts and, once residents officially approve Dole’s offer, their suits will be dropped.

A court-appointed mediator said he is working to quickly determine how much each property owner will receive based on their degree of pain and suffering and send checks by Christmas. But homeowners association President Barbara Post and others said this week they’re not convinced they will see the money anytime soon. They pleaded with the City Council on Tuesday to help push their attorneys to move quickly, though there is little the city can do now that it has dropped its legal complaints.

“You have no idea how many people have come to me just sobbing: ‘My wife’s got cancer, my daughter has cancer,’ and it just goes on and on,” Post told the City Council on Tuesday. “The most important thing right now is we’ve gone through eight years of hell. We don’t know when we’re going to get our money. We don’t know why they’re delaying it.”

A HARD-FOUGHT CASE

Nearly 1,500 current and former residents sued corporate giants Shell and Dole in 2010 despite the strong odds against them: They live near one of the state’s most industrially polluted regions and the contamination beneath their homes took place in the 1960s but wasn’t uncovered until 2008. Typically, there is a 10-year deadline to bring environmental contamination lawsuits.

Representing residents is the Los Angeles law firm Girardi & Keese, the company that famously won $333 million with the help of law clerk Erin Brockovich against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for contaminated drinking water in Hinkley. That legal fight was dramatized in a 2000 feature film named after Brockovich.

Girardi & Keese attorney Bob Finnerty said the final agreements in Carson are a reflection of all the parties realizing the toll the contamination has taken on people living in the community. Many residents believe their cancerous tumors, blood disorders, asthma and other illnesses stem from breathing noxious vapors for so many years.

“We are very happy with our ability to actually get them these settlements in these amounts, given what they were facing,” Finnerty said, adding that the legal teams for Shell and Dole worked hard to outspend Girardi & Keese early on, hoping to force early settlement negotiations.

Shell fought residents’ allegations fiercely for years — arguing their illnesses couldn’t be scientifically connected to the pollution — before agreeing in 2014 to pay them $90 million. Dole then led the fight, tying up the court case and settlement disbursement for nearly two more years. The prospect of a jury trial finally forced everyone to the table, Finnerty said.

Now, not only will the plaintiffs share in two financial settlements for pain and suffering totaling $120 million, but the neighborhood is being cleaned of tons of the waste oil left underground when a developer built homes atop an old Shell tank farm. Shell and Dole expect to spend roughly $200 million on the cleanup.

The two companies are still fighting each other in court over responsibility. Dole, the property owner, didn’t buy the land until after it was developed and Shell had a contract naming the developer responsible for removing the old tanks and waste oil.

FINANCIAL JUSTICE

But some residents are still upset because Shell’s $90 million payment has been sitting in a bank account since May while attorneys decide how to split it among the many plaintiffs with wide-ranging claims.

“When will we finally get justice and closure for the absolute hell we’ve been through?” Marsha Hearn, a Carousel tract resident, asked the City Council this week. “The promises made to us by our attorney are unfulfilled to date — all the meetings with phony assurances. I’m begging from this time forward that you all have our backs until we can finally close the chapter of this horror story.”

Construction equipment and workers have taken over a corner of the community, digging out and replacing soil by the truckload. The work will take place in groups of eight to 10 homes at a time.

Many residents are still angry the companies didn’t relocate the entire neighborhood while work is being done. Instead, they are relocating residents in small groups at a time while their lawns are dug up and replaced with “clean” soil and new landscaping.

“I was told a cat has nine lives,” said resident Shirley Gatlin. “I used one when I was diagnosed with cancer in 2001. I used up another life in 2003 when my husband died. I have used up another life this year when I suffered a hemorrhage that paralyzed my left side. I had to learn to walk, to eat, to think, again.

“I’m not fully recovered, so when I hear that the money being distributed is like a gift it’s an asinine statement. You all know the sufferings we are enduring. When you look at me again, please remember I already used up three lives. Please don’t let me lose my last remaining six lives.”

City officials scheduled a workshop to discuss concerns with the ongoing cleanup at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 29 at the Juanita Millender-McDonald Carson Community Center, 801 E. Carson St.

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