AVOCA — It smelled like mothballs.
Residents often questioned if the odor from the Kerr-McGee Corp. creosote wood-treatment plant in the center of the one-square-mile borough for four decades was harmful or connected to their health ailments, former Avoca mayor James Haddock said.
But company officials regularly attended borough municipal meetings and steadfastly assured everyone the tar preservative they applied to railroad ties and other wood products was environmentally safe, Haddock said.
Before the Mill Street plant closed in 1996 due to economic hardships, Kerr-McGee was Avoca’s largest employer, one of the largest property owners, and also the source of significant tax revenue for the borough, according to Haddock, who served as mayor there from 1994 to 2002.
“People always suspected it (the plant) was dangerous, but nobody knew for sure,” said Haddock, a Luzerne County government manager who remains a spokesperson and activist on the Avoca issue. “The threat was always that if residents made a fuss, they (the company) would pull out.”
Today, more than two decades after the Avoca operation shut down, past and present residents continue to file legal action seeking a share of a settlement fund most recently valued at $25.6 million as compensation for cancer and other health problems they blame on the creosote emissions.
Another 6,000 people already have obtained settlements. The first 1,600 settled their litigation in 2003, and a second wave of 4,400 sued in 2005 and received partial compensation through a settlement stemming from the 2009 bankruptcy of Kerr-McGee and related entities.
Cancer, respiratory problems, heart conditions, rashes and other medical maladies have been blamed on carcinogens and chemicals used at the Kerr-McGee plant, according to court records.
The site is fenced in and remains off limits to the public.
Residents were still in the dark about the threat of danger when the plant shut down.
The facility, on approximately 35 acres, was served by two railroads and was marketable, Haddock said. Determined to fill the “economic void,” he said he pushed Kerr-McGee officials for several years to sell the property or redevelop the site if the company no longer intended to operate there.
According to Haddock, Kerr-McGee initially maintained it wasn’t interested in his pitches because it wanted to preserve its option to resume wood-treatment operations in the future if economic and regulatory conditions changed. The company had pointed to a railroad decline and the high cost of complying with Pennsylvania’s environmental regulations as reasons for its closure.
Later, Haddock said, the company argued it did not want to spend energy redeveloping or selling the property because it was tied up with merger activities.
His first inkling about the possibility of environmental problems with the property came in August 1999 — nearly three years after he started communicating with Kerr-McGee about future uses for the site.
At that time, Haddock had been trying to arrange for Synergist Inc., a local environmental consulting firm, to investigate the site to see if it would be eligible for a state brownfield program that would allow Kerr-McGee to receive state grant money in exchange for redeveloping the land.
Puzzled about why he was being brushed off, Haddock pressed a Kerr-McGee real estate department representative to explain why the company refused to participate in the brownfield exploration or consider selling or leasing. The employee referred to “environmental issues with the property” but denied knowledge of the specifics, he said.
The unknown environmental issue began to consume Haddock.
Two borough parks — the Avoca Little League Field and Memorial Park — bordered the facility.
“Literally, hundreds of children play right next door to this ‘environmental issue,’” he said in a letter to the state in 2001.
As word of his discovery about some type of danger spread, residents connected the odor to the prevalence of health problems in Avoca and surrounding municipalities, leading to the first lawsuit later that year.
Haddock participated in that litigation and received a lump-sum settlement of $2,700 for his exposure to creosote.
Inundated with “heartbreaking” stories of pain and suffering from residents who did not participate in the original suit, Haddock arranged for The Powell Law Group PC to build a case, leading to the second suit in 2005 with 4,400 plaintiffs.
Seventeen of those plaintiffs obtained arbitration awards — nine averaging $26,000 per claim for pre-cancerous skin lesions, and eight averaging $117,000 for skin cancer.
“The first lawsuit settled out of court, so there was no admission of guilt. It was not until Powell beat them in arbitration and they were found guilty in a court of law that they were held liable,” Haddock said.
However, additional arbitration plans were cut short by the bankruptcy.
Haddock has estimated that 50,000 people were exposed to creosote emissions, including many now deceased.
Citing privacy concerns and the sensitivity of medical information, several claimants still seeking compensation agreed to speak about their cases on the condition that little or no identifying information would be published.
Pamela, a Pittston Township resident, has an outstanding claim for her husband of 35 years, who died last year at age 60 from cancer in three organs.
“I’m filing a claim against Kerr-McGee for pain and suffering, loss of wages and ‘ruining my entire life,’” she wrote in a court filing.
She and other outstanding claimants are trying to obtain payment from a pot of money set up through bankruptcy court for “new claims,” or victims who did not receive settlements from prior litigation involving Kerr-McGee and related entities.
The amount ultimately paid to each is still unknown because the final tally of approved participants has not been determined.
More than 25,000 people from Avoca — which has a current population of about 2,600 — and from other parts of the country have filed claims regarding health problems from several former Kerr-McGee Corp. operations, court filings say.
Pamela said her claims for two miscarriages and her daughter’s respiratory problems were rejected, but the one involving her husband was approved by the Ohio-based Garretson Resolution Group, which oversees the bankruptcy settlement trust.
Claimants rejected by Garretson have the option to appeal to bankruptcy court, and more than 3,600 of these challenges have been filed to date, according to court records.
A spokesperson at Garretson said the company does not track the claims by geographic location, but Haddock said he was informed a high number stem from the Avoca area.
Haddock has expressed concerns because the money set aside for new claims has been shrinking, with no claimants paid.
The pot was valued at $25.6 million at the end of 2016 after absorbing $9.4 million for trust management and processing fees during that year, according to the latest audit filed by Garretson.
Pamela said her husband was exposed to creosote for decades while living in neighboring Dupont. She also lived there when they married in 1980 and suffered the two miscarriages. She moved to Pittston Township in 2000.
She said she is convinced her family was exposed because the odor of the Kerr-McGee plant reached their home.
“It was a weird smell,” she said. “We’d smell it a lot.”
Her husband did not participate in prior suits because he was not diagnosed with cancer until 2015, she said.
“How much should be paid for a life? He was a terrific guy, a hard worker and a good father, husband and son to his mother — always there for anybody in the family,” Pamela said.
Cindy, a Duryea resident, is among the thousands challenging Garretson’s rejection of claims for herself, her two children and late husband, saying they all suffered from chronic respiratory and stomach issues while living in Duryea, another borough adjacent to Avoca, from 1989 until Kerr-McGee’s closure in 1996.
She said her husband faithfully walked around the Avoca plant for exercise and died in 2005 at the age of 42. Her two children, born in 1990 and 1993, were sick so often that their pediatrician asked if they were exposed to any environmental hazards, she said. The family searched the home to rule out mold.
Like Pamela, she has no doubt the plant was the culprit.
“Once the plant closed, we all got better,” Cindy said. “Anybody who was exposed should be paid.”
No forearm or hand
While the names of all people challenging their claim rejections in court are a matter of public record, the Times Leader is not identifying the claimants out of respect for their privacy.
Their filings detail myriad ailments and circumstances.
One man said he lived 100 yards from the Avoca plant from 1960 to 1984 and again from 1988 until its closure, and he was plagued with severe headaches and dizziness starting in 1990.
Another man, who now lives in Georgia, said he lived within a few miles of the plant during its entire operation (1956 to 1996) and suffers from a digestive disorder, asthma and inflamed sinuses.
Details from some other claimants:
• A man points to childhood allergies in the 1960s and ’70s, skin cancer diagnosed in 2007, and heart disease and high blood pressure confirmed in 2012.
He said his mother attended games in the park adjacent to the plant while she was pregnant with him.
“I attended ballgames all through my childhood and used to play on the creosote railroad ties by the park,” he wrote.
• A woman said she lived in the borough from 1992 until a year after the plant’s closure and had a child born with special needs in addition to her own medical issues, including migraine headaches.
• One person was born with no left forearm or hand.
• Filing a claim on her late mother’s behalf, a woman cited her mother’s vascular and respiratory problems and breast cancer diagnosed between 1980 and 1982 while living about a quarter-mile from the plant in Duryea since 1972.
“We were subjected to the odor/stench from the creosote. The odor/air quality was so bad and heavy. We were unable to open windows/doors without feeling ill. My mother suffered the worst from this out of all of us,” the daughter wrote.
Most of the Kerr-McGee buildings were demolished by 2008, according to county assessment records. The perimeter is fenced in and marked “no trespassing.”
The entity known today as the “new” Kerr-McGee Corp. in court records did not come into existence until 2001 and can’t be held liable for the past negligence and injury alleged by the Avoca claimants, the company’s lawyers have successfully argued in court when some of the plaintiffs have tried to seek additional compensation.
The former Kerr-McGee and related entities paid a $5.1 billion bankruptcy settlement, with 12.5 percent going to victims in seven groups across the country, including new claimants. In 2015, the U.S. government declared the package the largest recovery for the cleanup of environmental contamination in history.
The Avoca plaintiffs have argued they were not “made whole” by the bankruptcy settlement, which covered approximately 32 percent of what they had claimed in damages, according to court filings.
Unknown to Haddock, Kerr-McGee had informed the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) of environmental issues with soil contamination at the site in the late 1990s, or before Haddock’s 2001 letter seeking a review, DEP Northeast regional spokesperson Colleen Connolly said after reviewing case records.
Kerr-McGee was required to address the soil contamination issues, including maintenance of an asphalt cap at the site and enactment of a deed restriction prohibiting residential use of the property, Connolly said. The company filed an Act 2 report in December 2005 verifying it met state standards for soil contamination, she said.
DEP does not monitor water, soil and air at the site but periodically checks the integrity of the cap, including an inspection conducted in January, Connolly said.
As part of the bankruptcy case, ownership of the Avoca property and other contaminated sites across the country was transferred to Massachusetts-based Greenfield Environmental Multistate in 2011, county property records show.
In a conference call last week, three Greenfield representatives — Cynthia Brooks, Marc Weinreich and Ty Griffith — said only $4,101 in bankruptcy funds were earmarked for the Avoca property because the state-approved containment plan already had been implemented in 2005.
According to the three, the plan included the fencing, tank removal and installation of a synthetic liner and cap over creosote processing areas.
With the bankruptcy, Greenfield has no authority, responsibility or funding to proceed with additional remediation measures, they said. Instead, they welcome discussions with viable entities interested in further clean-up and development of the site.
Although residential development is not permissible, the land might be suitable for commercial or recreational projects after environmental issues are addressed, they said.
Brooks stressed Greenfield would seek the input of borough residents and officials on any potential development plans.
“In light of what’s happened there, people may not want another industrial operation there,” she said.
Haddock, who lives in Pittston Township but still owns two properties in Avoca, is launching a push to find out what, if any, contamination remains and what government funding is available to repurpose the site. It should not remain a haunting, fenced-in reminder of the potential danger forever, he said.
“We don’t know what’s there,” Haddock said. “We still have more questions than answers.”