OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) – A federal jury in Opelika on Wednesday awarded the city of Columbus, Ga., and other plaintiffs $20.7 million in an air pollution lawsuit filed against a Phenix City carbon black plant.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs contend carbon black air emission from the Continental Carbon plant damaged residential and business property in the Columbus area.

According to trial testimony, management at the black carbon plant requested a number of pollution control improvements at the plant, which were rejected by the parent company China Synthetic Rubber Corp.

David Byrne, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, said both Continental Carbon and China Synthetic acted in bad faith.

"This is a situation where a large company has put product production ahead of local citizens' property," Byrne said.

The jury awarded $1.9 million in compensatory damages, $1.29 million in attorney's fees and expenses, and $17.5 million in punitive damages.

In addition to Columbus, Action Marine boat dealership and its owner John Tharpe were named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Owen Ditchfield, a Columbus resident, was also named.

Tharpe and his dealership will receive the bulk of the compensatory damages at $1.3 million.

During his closing arguments, defense attorney Thomas Wells, Jr. expressed regret for his clients' failure to react quickly enough when notified of problems at the plant.

"We understand from your verdict that Continental Carbon did not act fast enough when we encountered those problems," Wells said afterward. "For that, we are truly sorry."

Plaintiffs' attorneys said there is at least one other lawsuit pending against Continental Carbon.

The case was denied class-action status in November in U.S. District Court, leaving attorneys to take the cases to trial individually. Since that ruling, attorneys in the suit have organized a petition for people who believe their property has been damaged by the company's emissions.


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