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State Trial Set in Pollution Case

January 6, 2002

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) _ Brothers Terry and David Baker grew up playing in the fields and ditches near the chemical plant in Anniston where for nearly four decades Monsanto Co. manufactured PCBs for electrical insulation.

Terry Baker died in 1971 at age 16; an autopsy found he had a brain tumor, lung cancer and hardening of the cardiac arteries, his brother said last week. David Baker, 50, suffers from skin cysts and boils.

Baker blames Monsanto for both his bad skin and his brother’s death. He is among some 3,540 people suing the company, now called Solutia Inc., in an environmental pollution case set for trial Monday.

A company statement said Solutia and Monsanto ``acted fairly and responsibly in dealing with the community and regulators about PCBs in Anniston.″

Solutia argues it shouldn’t have to pay anything. The company already has spent $40 million cleaning up PCB contamination around Anniston, and it claims there is no proof that the chemicals caused any of the myriad health problems that the plaintiffs claim.

``There’s a study here and a study there, but there’s nothing consistent,″ said Tom Bistline, a Solutia attorney.

An exact amount sought by the plaintiffs was not available, but it’s expected to be in the millions of dollars, based on previous PCBs claims against the company.

Plaintiffs contend the company knowingly poisoned mostly poor west Anniston with PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, for years, then covered up the damage with the help of state regulators.

``They lied, and they got away with lying for 25 or 30 years,″ said Baker, who started Community Against Pollution, an activist group.

The trial will be held in state court in Gadsden, about 20 miles from Anniston _ a midsize city about 40 miles east of Birmingham.

The dispute will be decided in phases, with cases involving property damage and lost property value to be heard first. Testimony about health claims is to follow, but the cases could be cut short by a decision issued by the Alabama Supreme Court in September. The justices ruled that people can’t sue for health claims when they have no injuries or illnesses, and many of the PCB cases involve health problems that could develop in the future.

Circuit Judge Joel Laird, who must decide which cases can go forward, said jury selection would take a couple days and testimony would probably not begin before Wednesday.

The outcome will be watched on Wall Street. Shares of Solutia dropped about 28 percent last week after The Washington Post detailed the plaintiffs’ allegations.

The company called the story ``one-sided and biased.″ But nearly identical charges were aired last year during a trial in Birmingham, where Solutia agreed to a $40 million settlement with about 1,600 Anniston residents after more than two weeks of testimony in federal court.

The company previously agreed to pay $43.7 million to settle a suit involving the Anniston plant brought by 4,000 to 5,000 property owners along a downstream creek and lake where PCBs were found.

The company said it made PCBs in Anniston from 1927 through 1971 for use as insulation in electrical equipment. The government banned production of the chemicals in the late 1970s because of possible health risks.

During the Birmingham trial, lawyers for the residents said once-secret company documents showed Monsanto knew the chemicals were hazardous by the 1960s yet continued making them without proper safeguards.

Also, they said, neither the company nor state environmental regulators warned residents of a health risk.

The claim that the company concealed the danger angers Baker the most, especially when he remembers how he and his late brother played in areas now fenced off because of PCB pollution.

``We played in the ditches all the time. We ate plums from this area. We ate the dirt,″ he said. ``If they didn’t think it was a problem for the people, why did they hide it for so long? You don’t hide something that’s not a problem.″

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