There were about 30 phone messages from potential class-members in a landmark settlement against Monsanto waiting when the office charged with handling those claims opened on Tuesday morning.
Charleston attorney Thomas Flaherty is charged with spreading the word to thousands of potential claimants who once lived, worked or went to school in the Nitro area that could be eligible to participate in a medical monitoring program and have their home cleaned of dioxin.
The office at 2303 1st Ave. in Nitro has been set up as part of the $93 million deal reached in the case last year. It will be open through Oct. 31.
“We want folks to come get more information,” said Flaherty, who says it won’t be a hassle to prove whether someone is entitled to benefits. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible.”
In February 2012, Monsanto agreed to the settlement on the eve of an expected six-month trial in which residents sought medical monitoring for dioxin-related illnesses and a cleanup of what they argued was a contaminated community. The company agreed to a 30-year medical monitoring program with a primary fund of $21 million for initial testing and up to $63 million in additional money dependent on what levels of dioxin are found in residents.
Monsanto also agreed to spend $9 million cleaning 4,500 homes in the area to rid them of dioxin-contaminated dust.
The settlement allows residents to retain their right to file personal-injury lawsuits against Monsanto if medical tests turn up illnesses potentially related to dioxin exposure.
“It’s been a real long haul,” said Stuart Calwell, lead plaintiffs’ attorney in the case. “The politics of dioxin has been bitterly debated since the Vietnam War, but ... we know that there is a health issues there and hopefully people will get their houses cleaned and the risk will come to an end and those exposed in the past will have the benefit of keeping an eye on their health.”
For more than 50 years, the Monsanto plant churned out herbicides, rubber products and other chemicals. The plant’s production of Agent Orange, a defoliant deployed widely in the Vietnam War, created dioxin as a toxic chemical byproduct.
In a 2008 class action suit, residents sought medical monitoring for at least 5,000 — and perhaps as many as 80,000 — current and former Nitro residents.
Dioxin has been linked to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, endometriosis and other infertility problems, and suppressed immune functions. The chemical builds up in tissue over time, meaning that even a small exposure can accumulate to dangerous levels.
The cleanups include vacuuming carpets, rugs and accessible horizontal surfaces with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter vacuums, wet cleaning floors, floor vents, tops of doors and window moldings, interior window sills, ceiling fans, light fixtures and radiators.
To be eligible, you must have at least worked full-time, gone to school full-time or lived in the geographic area covered between Jan. 1, 1948, and Sept. 3, 2010. You must also fall within one of a certain set of criteria — based on your age and the time period when you lived, worked or went to school in Nitro — that are spelled out in the settlement. Former employees of Monsanto Co. are not eligible to participate in medical monitoring.
To take part in the cleanup, Flaherty said he’s looking for deeds, a tax receipt or anything that proves ownership of a residence.
For medical monitoring, provide a driver’s license, a high school diploma or even a picture in a yearbook, he said.
“We’ll take people’s word for it and they can sign an affidavit,” he said.
The deal also includes up to $29.5 million in fees and costs for attorneys representing the class-action plaintiffs. But $9.5 million of that is contingent upon the number of people who eventually qualify for the settlement and how many residents show certain levels of dioxin in their blood. Before approving the settlement, Circuit Judge Derek Swope questioned Flaherty on how he planned to spread the word about the settlement to residents. Flaherty said Tuesday three employees will occupy the office and answer phone calls and questions of potential claimants.
Advertisements have been sent to local newspapers, he said, and about 36,000 packets of information about the settlement were mailed out last week. Large signs are posted on the outside of the building, which is located directly beside Nitro Florist.
Those eligible to be tested for disease will receive free medical exams and testing at Thomas Healthcare System in South Charleston.
Between 3,000 and 5,000 people are estimated to be eligible for the medical tests. The initial health screening will include blood tests and a standard health history report. Also, samples will be taken to determine how much dioxin participants have in their blood. Other blood tests will be used to determine blood sugar, cholesterol and blood count, which can provide early detection of cancer and other diseases. These tests would then be performed every five years. If 25 percent or more of the participants in the program are found to have more than certain “background” levels of dioxin in their blood, increased frequency of the medical tests kicks in, from every five years to every two years, which Monsanto has agreed to provide up to $63 million in additional funding for, according to court documents.
“After years of litigation, now the benefits exist. However, we have a small hurdle, we need people to fill out the registration in order to get those benefits,” said David Carriger an attorney with Calwell’s firm.
Dante diTrapano, a paralegal with the firm, said Tuesday the judge wants the settlement to be one of “inclusion rather than exclusion” and that the sign-up process would be handled liberally.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal made by some residents who said the settlement was inadequate and unfair because it provides benefits to only some members of the class of residents involved.
The office will be open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Saturday. For questions, call 1-877-673-5049.
“We have continually received phone calls, so I know there’s interest,” Calwell said. “We’re going to be very aggressive getting the word out.”
Reach Kate White at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1723.