New lawsuits target alleged contaminants near Plant Scherer

Special to The TelegraphSeptember 18, 2013 

A team of personal injury attorneys filed two lawsuits Wednesday on behalf of 123 Monroe County residents and former residents, claiming that the owners of Plant Scherer harmed their health and property.

Plant Scherer, a coal-fired power plant in Juliette, is operated and majority owned by Georgia Power. The lawsuits claim it and the plant’s minority owners knowingly released toxic and cancer-causing contaminants, mostly carried by coal ash, into the air and groundwater.

About 40 of the residents are also suing the Vulcan Materials granite quarry on Pea Ridge Road. They allege that its blasting and runoff spread toxic and hazardous materials, including uranium and thorium, through the air and groundwater. The lawsuit also claims the quarry spreads dust that can causes silicosis, tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments.

Some residents who live near Scherer or Vulcan have complained of corrosive dust on their homes and cars for years. All Juliette residents rely on wells for drinking water, although Monroe County is in the process of extending water lines there.

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages for negligence, nuisance, fraud and deceit, battery and racketeering, among other claims. Eleven of the plaintiffs are minor children.

The Macon firm Gautreaux & Adams is partnering with attorney Jess Davis of Atlanta and New York-based Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik LLP on the lawsuits, which were filed in DeKalb County State Court. The Macon and New York firms also worked together to file 13 similar lawsuits early this year on behalf of 23 other Juliette residents.

Georgia Power spokesman Mark Williams said the company has not seen the lawsuits and would not comment on pending litigation.

Jimmy Fleming, vice president of human resources for Vulcan Materials Co.’s east region, could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon. Neither could other human resources personnel in the company’s Atlanta office.

In recent years, tests have shown that many Juliette homes have high uranium levels in their well water or radon in their air, in some cases at very dangerous levels, and some residents have been diagnosed with uranium poisoning. When uranium breaks down, it forms radon, which is the leading cause of lung cancer among American nonsmokers.

The lawsuits deal with uranium, but also a host of other radioactive and toxic compounds found in coal ash, which is stored at Scherer both in the form of a powder and in a 750-acre unlined pond. Among these contaminants are chromium, lead, mercury, and arsenic.

The lawsuit alleges that Plant Scherer owners engaged in racketeering and fraud, conspiring to avoid the cost of lining the coal ash pond by convincing the public, local health care providers and government agencies that coal ash is safe. The lawsuits state, “These misrepresentations were knowingly false and/or made with reckless indifference to the truth.”

Not only Georgia Power but the electric industry as a whole publicly argues that coal ash is safe, and a ruling otherwise could have broad implications.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly delayed issuing new coal ash regulations in the years since a massive 2008 Tennessee coal ash spill, partly because the industry resists designating the ash as a hazardous waste.

The lawsuits claim the owners of the power plant and the quarry have “failed to operate their facilities in compliance with applicable laws and regulations enacted for the protection of public and private health, safety and property.”

Georgia Power officials have long pointed to Scherer’s good track record with state and federal environmental agencies, insisting the company follows all laws.

The state Department of Public Health issued a report at the end of June concluding that Monroe County’s high uranium levels are occurring naturally and are not caused by Georgia Power or other industry.

The department did indicate that the county has higher cancer rates than the state average and that water from highly contaminated wells presents a higher cancer risk for those who drink it over the course of a lifetime. The report states, however, that no cancer cases can be attributed to radium or radon exposure.

The attorneys representing Juliette-area residents dispute the state’s findings, saying the type of uranium in Juliette’s well water is different from that which occurs naturally in Middle Georgia.

New approach

In the lawsuits filed in January, each family was represented in a separate case that detailed the alleged harm to individuals. This time, the legal team chose to file just two lawsuits: one against Plant Scherer’s owners and another representing clients who are suing both the plant and Vulcan.

Brian Adams, a partner with Gautreaux & Adams, said most of his clients are claiming both medical and property damages. Recurring symptoms among his clients include breathing problems, nosebleeds, muscle spasms and cancers, he said. There is one new wrongful death claim, too, on behalf of S.T. Jarrell of Juliette.

A few of those suing Plant Scherer have Forsyth addresses, but most live (or lived) in Juliette. Although a number were renters, most lived in the area “a significant amount of time,” Adams said.

He said the plaintiffs were grouped into two lawsuits for efficiency, but that doesn’t give the suits class-action status. The residents still have their own claims and can make individual decisions about how they want to proceed throughout the case.

Although the companies being sued had tried to get the earlier cases moved to Monroe County, a judge ruled earlier this summer that they could remain in DeKalb.

Adams said he expects the discovery process for all the lawsuits to start within 30 days.

He said his firm doesn’t anticipate filing another round of similar lawsuits within the next six months. But lawyers are still being approached by neighbors interested in suing the owners of Plant Scherer and the quarry, so he didn’t rule out additional lawsuits later.

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