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Smelter settlement OK'd, orders cleanup by DuPont

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Harrison County judge has approved a $150 million lawsuit settlement that requires DuPont Co. 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 issued an order Tuesday to approve the deal, which was tentatively reached in November and was the subject of a court hearing last week.

The judge noted the settlement ends a long battle in his courtroom, in federal court and before the state Supreme Court of Appeals.

"There have been many battles fought by the parties and both sides have had victories," Bedell wrote.

"However, winning a battle or a skirmish does not end the war," the judge wrote. "The potential for lengthy future conflict still looms on the horizon, and, without this settlement, this war is not over."

The settlement ends 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 will 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 Tuesday on a request by the residents' lawyers for $30 million in fees and nearly $10 million in expenses. He also did not rule on a dispute between the residents' lawyers and DuPont over the exact mechanism for overseeing the medical monitoring program.

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 Grasselli 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 steered 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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