Stuart Calwell, an attorney from Charleston, has filed 77 lawsuits against Monsanto and related companies over its old chemical plant in Nitro, West Virginia.
Each suit seeks $5 million in compensatory damages and the plaintiffs seek an additional $300 million in punitive damages for a total of $685 million in total damages.
The complaints, filed Oct. 1 in Putnam Circuit Court, list Monsanto Company, Pharmacia Corporation, Akzo Nobel Inc, Flexsys America, Solutia Inc., Apogee Coal Company and related companies as defendants.
The complaints state that "plaintiffs allege the same series of occurrences involving the negligent and otherwise unlawful release of dioxin from properties owned and/or controlled by the defendants caused or significantly contributed to their cancers."
The dioxin in question, 2,4,5 trichlorophenoxyacetic acid or 2,4,5-T, was used by the military as an ingredient in Agent Orange. The complaints claim that dioxin was continuously produced at the plant "7 days a week 365 days a year from 1949 to approximately 1971."
"During the years that Monsanto was operating its trichlorophenol plant, it adopted an unlawful practice of disposing of dioxin waste materials by a continuous process of open 'pit' burning," the complaints state. "This practice was largely denied by Monsanto whose representatives characterized the practice as an 'incineration process' when asked by regulatory authorities.
"Further, the manufacturing process itself was dusty and Monsanto's dust control was haphazard."
The complaints say that because of Monsanto's harmful practices, the air in Nitro was contaminated with more than 3,000 pounds of a dioxin. Sampling showed levels of 2,200 parts per trillion, 550 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard of less than 4 parts per trillion.
The suits also cite a 1949 incident in which a safety disc failed at the plant, exposing workers to a chemical cloud that caused 226 people to become ill.
The complaints claim that the defendants acted carelessly, negligently, recklessly and/or deliberately when they knew or should have known the Nitro plant site was contaminated and dangerous.
Calwell also seeks to have the cases certified as a class-action lawsuit. "The proposed class is made up of persons with one or more dioxin related cancers and who live or lived in the class defined area ... for at least two years during the period 1949 to the present and/or have attended school in the class defined area for at least two years and/or who have been employed in a building in the class defined area for two years or more," the complaints state, adding that there are 12,503 residences in the area.