May 29, 2014 9:53:24 AM
A U.S. bankruptcy judge has accepted Anadarko Petroleum Corporation's proposed $5.15 billion settlement to clean up former Kerr-McGee sites around the country and compensate those who have suffered negative health effects despite objections saying it was not enough.
In December, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York found Kerr-McGee liable for damages ranging from $5.2 to $14.2 billion. The United States Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency, which filed the suit, settled last month for the $5.15 billion from Anadarko, which bought Kerr-McGee's major assets in 2006.
The agreement will now be reviewed by a district court. Of a handful of groups objecting to the settlement, two were from Columbus. Local attorneys Wilbur Colom and Hal McClanahan appeared before U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan Wednesday objecting to the settlement. Colom, representing residents affected by toxins from the site, disputed that residents were not properly notified of how to qualify to receive claims for personal injury and that the agreement protects Anadarko from future litigation if people who suffer health problems from exposure to creosote in the future seek compensation.
"People who were exposed to these kinds of chemicals may have diseases that may not manifest themselves sometimes for 15 to 30 years," Colom said. "It's not like you get exposed to creosote and within a few years you come down with something."
McClanahan argued the amount, which includes $68 million to remediate the 90-acre site in Columbus where Kerr-McGee once operated, wasn't enough to ensure all toxic chemicals will be removed. Representing Maranatha Faith Center, a church located in the affected area, McClanahan noted the settlement was at the low end of the scale of potential damages and that Anadarko had enough assets and cash flow to pay the maximum of $14 billion.
"In this procedure, the judge does not have the authority to cherry pick the settlement," McClanahan said. "All the judge can do in this case is accept or reject the settlement as proposed. If he rejected the settlement, they would have to go back to trial and then there would be a delay in getting what money there was to the Columbus community and everybody else. The government's case is based on guesstimates on what the high range of damages would be, not actual proof of damages. If you're going to guess, let's guess in favor of the people."
The judge, Allan Gropper, is quoted in Bloomberg during the hearing as saying the 12 percent -- or $604 million set aside for claims -- of the suit should be sufficient.
"All I know is that if I delay this settlement and refuse to approve it, the cleanup you are looking forward to in Columbus and agree is urgent, will not take place as soon," Gropper said.
"Until the Kerr-McGee facility is remediated ... Maranatha and everybody (around) the Luxapalila (Creek) is in danger," McClanahan added. "At least put enough money in here where we can get a complete cleanup."
EPA has handed the Columbus Kerr-McGee site to Multistate Environmental Response Trust, a trustee group of a company that cleans up Superfund sites. Multistate is managing and overseeing cleanup of 23 other Kerr-McGee sites similar to the one in Columbus.
Regular exposure to creosote, a wood preservative used extensively at the plant while it was in operation, was determined to be carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The plant closed in 2003.
Maranatha Pastor Steve Jamison previously told The Dispatch that the settlement was inadequate for the amount of damage caused at all the sites.
"The entire 15 years we've been fighting this fight for a community who has lost its property value and has been exposed to serious health problems and dangerous situations," Jamison said. "For the damage Kerr-McGee did to Columbus and other areas across the nation, I think the federal government let Kerr-McGee off with a slap on the wrist. No one was made whole but Kerr-McGee."
An investigation, development of a clean-up plan and EPA review will take up to two and a half years before cleanup starts.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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