Lawsuit: Danville plant for decades endangered health of workers, neighbors

bestep@herald-leader.comNovember 28, 2013 

Hazardous wastes from a glass-manufacturing plant in Danville endangered the health of employees and neighbors over a period of decades, federal lawsuits have charged.

The operators of the old Phillips North American Lighting plant on Danville's west side "illegally, recklessly or negligently" dumped hazardous substances on property outside the boundaries of the property, the lawsuit claimed.

Those areas include fields that the plant owner later donated to the city, which converted them to playgrounds and youth sports fields, according to the lawsuit.

Contamination from the plant spread through at least a five-mile radius around the facility, exposing people to increased risk of various cancers, kidney failure, damage to the central nervous system and other health problems, the lawsuit said.

Lexington attorneys Richard A. Getty and Jessica Winters filed two lawsuits against the plant owners Wednesday in federal court in Lexington.

One claim is for Gay Bowen, who lived near the plant for more than 25 years, and a Danville company called Modern Holdings LLC. The other is for Elbert Cox Jr., who worked at the plant for 28 years.

The claims said Bowen and Cox were injured by exposure to contamination generated by the plant.

Bowen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995 and Cox with colon cancer in 2008, the complaints said, while Modern Holdings claims contamination from the old glass plant has hurt its property value.

The lawsuits seek class-action status.

One suit defined the proposed class as anyone who owned property or lived within five miles of the plant between 1952 and 2013 and has been damaged by the owner's conduct in allowing hazardous substances to escape from the site.

The complaint by Bowen and Modern Holdings is against Phillips Electronics North America; its parent company, Royal Phillips, headquartered in The Netherlands; and Corning Inc.

Cox's suit is only against Phillips. The proposed class in that action involves anyone who worked at the plant from 1983 to 2011.

If a judge grants class-action status, there could be thousands more people added to the lawsuits, Getty said.

George J. Miller, an attorney for Corning, declined comment on the pending litigation.

Corning built the factory in 1952 and made glass products there for decades before selling the plant to Phillips in 1983. Phillips operated the plant until it closed in 2011, then sold it back to Corning in 2013, according to the lawsuit.

The plant was once a key part of the local economy, employing about 400 people at one time.

The state earlier this year approved a $6.5 million tax incentive for Corning to buy the plant for a new glass-making operation that could ultimately employ 100 people.

The plant has not resumed production.

Before it closed, a variety of hazardous substances were used at the plant, including arsenic, mercury, lead and other heavy metals, according to the lawsuit.

In addition to dumping substances outside the plant boundary, the operators allowed lead dust and other substances to wash into the Clark's Run watershed, spreading the contamination, the lawsuit said.

The plant operators knew substances could escape from the site; one example is that Corning and Phillips employees were routinely assigned to walk along Clark's Run to look for dead animals, according to the complaints.

The lawsuit charged that the plant operators have hid the truth about the nature and extent of contamination at the site. They have paid for bogus studies and misrepresented their cleanup efforts, as well as the extent to which substances have spread from the site and the health risks of being exposed to those substances, the lawsuit charged.

The plant operators knew working conditions at the factory — such as clouds of lead dust — were unsafe, but did not tell employees about the risk, Cox's lawsuit said.

Employees were encouraged to show up at safety training sessions, sign a paper saying they had received training, but go back to work without actually receiving any training, according to Cox's claim.

Some people died as a result of exposure to contamination from the plant, the lawsuit said.

The demands in Bowen's lawsuit are that Phillips and Corning pay for medical monitoring for people in the affected area; that they pay compensatory and punitive damages; and that a judge order them to clean up hazardous substances from plaintiffs' property.

Cox's lawsuit seeks damages and medical monitoring.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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