Source: http://www2.tbo.com, June 16, 2011
By: Mark Douglas
Three years after filing a lawsuit against the Raytheon Co. for polluting a St. Petersburg neighborhood, attorneys have agreed to a settlement in which most homeowners will get $2,500 each.
If all those entitled to the settlement collect their money, the cost would amount to about $900,000 – far short of the hundreds of millions that the homeowners’ attorneys originally estimated.
U.S. District Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington agreed to accept the agreement during a hearing Thursday.
Raytheon inherited a now-defunct defense plant, at 1501 72nd St. N., where underground pollution was first discovered in 1991.
The previous owner, E-Systems, had dumped chemicals and solvents used to clean and manufacture electronic parts in open pits behind its buildings. Other chemicals leaked form underground tanks.
Hundreds of homeowners said they didn’t know pollution was spreading under their properties before it was revealed in an March 2008 report by News Channel 8.
Attorneys for the homeowners acknowledged earlier that the plume of pollution poses no health threat. With today’s settlement, they also conceded that studies conducted by both sides show property values did not suffer from the problem.
Now, it’s up to individuals who own homes and condominiums to accept a cash payout in exchange for a release from further litigation.
“The evidence did not support going forward,” Raytheon attorney Eugene Assaf said. “There is no threat to health posed by this site nor is there evidence that property values declined because of the pollution.”
Raytheon presented studies showing property values – hit hard everywhere by the housing crisis – declined around the Raytheon plant by 14.9 percent during the past three years.
That compared to 12.7 percent nationwide, 27 percent in Florida, 22 percent in the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area, and 20.1 percent in South Pinellas, Raytheon said.
The $2,500 Raytheon agreed to pay will go to homeowners within the area of potential contamination defined by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. In addition, Raytheon will work with nearby condominium complexes to help with property enhancements. Raytheon lawyers say the exact dollar amount for the condominiums hasn’t been worked out.
The money, attorney Assaf said, “is intended to better their homes or better their yards and it is reflective of Raytheon’s commitment to this community.”
Neither side is entitled to attorneys fees but plaintiff attorney Brian Barr said his firm hopes to recover some expert witness costs from Raytheon.
The lawsuit was dealt a blow when a federal appellate court sent the case back to Tampa, saying evidence was insufficient to grant the homeowners class action status.
“We came to the conclusion we would not be able to meet the burden,” said Brian Barr, with the law firm Levin, Papantonio of Pensacola, representing the homeowners.
“I don’t think anyone is ever going to say this was a lawsuit that was frivolous,” Barr said.
An often-revised cleanup plan, finally approved by the state, calls for a three-prong approach: oxidation of the plume, thermal heating to vaporize the underground contaminants, and pumping and treating the waste with a system extending up to half a mile from the Raytheon property.
Raytheon experts estimate that 95 percent of the pollution will be gone in three years but that some pollution will linger under surrounding neighborhoods for as long as 60 years.
RAYTHEON PLUME TIMELINE
1991: Contaminants found during construction on Pinellas Trail, which abuts site.
1992: E-Systems, site owner from 1976 to 1994, reports pollution to the Department of Environmental Protection. Soil removed, study begins.
1995: Raytheon purchases plant site.
1998-1999: Raytheon submits reports, cleanup plan to state Department of Environmental Protection.
2001: DEP rejects the plan.
2005: Plume of pollution starts moving through groundwater into surrounding neighborhood.
2005: Raytheon concludes any potential risk to human health would be “negligible.”
2008: Raytheon begins cleaning groundwater pollution under plant.
2009: Federal judge grants class-action status to lawsuit by residents.
2010: Raytheon consultant says it will take up to 78 years to complete cleanup.
2010: DEP rejects Raytheon’s latest plan to clean groundwater contamination.
2011: Appeals court calls class-action status premature, returns case to federal judge