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Judge defers ruling on Spelter smelter settlement

A Harrison County judge is expected to rule early next week on a proposed $150 million lawsuit settlement that would require DuPont to clean up contamination of the community of Spelter and fund a program to test residents for any illnesses the pollution might have caused.

Circuit Judge Thomas A. Bedell did not immediately rule after a hearing Thursday morning on the proposed deal between DuPont and a class of roughly 8,500 current and former residents of the community.

"The judge deferred all rulings," said Charleston lawyer Ed Hill, one of the attorneys for the Spelter residents.

Lawyers for the residents and DuPont appeared at the hearing, required by West Virginia law for all settlements of "class-action" lawsuits, seeking court approval for the deal announced last month.

The settlement, if finalized, would end a six-year-old lawsuit that prompted a nearly $400 million jury verdict. If Bedell signs off, the settlement eliminates the need for another, Supreme Court-ordered trial over whether residents filed their suit within legal time limits. That trial had been set for March 2011.

Under the settlement, DuPont would pay $70 million and fund a 30-year medical monitoring program that is estimated to cost between $65 million and $90 million.

Of that $70 million payment, $4 million is set aside for cash payments for roughly 6,000 former and current residents who do not own property in the area. Some of that $4 million might also be used to kick-start the medical monitoring program. The other $66 million from that $70 million payment is to fund property remediation in the area and to pay the lawyers who represented residents in the case.

Bedell did not rule Thursday on a request from the residents' lawyers that the receive $30 million in fees and nearly $10 million in expenses. The judge also did not immediately rule on a dispute between the residents' lawyers and DuPont attorneys about exactly how the medical monitoring program would be managed.

The Spelter site, just north of Clarksburg, was originally a DuPont gunpowder mill that opened in 1899. After that facility burned down, Grasselli chemical Co. built a zinc smelter and a company town. DuPont bought Graselli in 1928 and operated the smelter until 1950, when an internal report showed air-pollution control upgrades would cost $325,000.

In the late 1980s, federal environmental officials began investigate the site. DuPont got involved, eventually repurchased the smelter and steer the cleanup toward the state Department of Environmental Protection's voluntary program, rather than the more stringent federal Superfund program. Residents sued in 2004, alleging that the cleanup was inadequate and that the smelter's pollution put them at increased risk of getting sick.

A Harrison County jury awarded nearly $400 million for property cleanup, medical monitoring and punitive damages. The Supreme Court upheld most of the verdict, but cut the punitive damages and ordered a new trial on the statute of limitations issues.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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