ANNISTON – Sylvia Curry stood outside the Calhoun County Courthouse Thursday morning and was hailed as a hero in the historic, seven-year legal battle against a corporate polluter. “I know this is not going to take the place of our health, but this will help a lot of people enjoy what little time we do have left,” said Curry, who counts two bouts of cancer and hypertension among her ailments. She is one of thousands of plaintiffs urged by lawyers and judges alike Thursday to accept the terms of an about $700 million settlement against Solutia and Monsanto Co. for polluting their property and endangering their health with polychlorinated biphenyl’s, or PCBs. The settlement, an unprecedented agreement reached between state and federal courts, calls for the defendants to compensate victims with a combination of cash and community health and education initiatives, along with cleaning up tainted residential property. “The heroes of this case (are) the people of west Anniston,” declared plaintiffs’ attorney Donald Stewart, one of scores of lawyers, legal aides, Solutia executives, judges, jurors, court reporters and even a bailiff on hand for a combination victory party and press conference Thursday outside the courthouse. “Everybody said nothing could be done about this problem. But you stood tall, you stood together, you had the patience and the confidence and the persistence.” Also hailed as heroes were the 15 Etowah County jurors who have been sitting on the state case since 1996, a point not lost on Calhoun County Circuit Judge Joel Laird. Comparing jurors to American troops serving their country in foreign wars, Laird said, “These 15 people have given time out of their daily lives, they’ve suffered physically, they’ve suffered mentally, they’ve suffered in their jobs, they’ve suffered socially, they’ve suffered in their homes lives in order to perform their civic public duty.” Meanwhile, the specter of bankruptcy hangs over the agreement. Solutia said in a quarterly financial report that it might file bankruptcy partly because of the litigation costs. Plaintiff attorney’s Johnnie Cochran, who gained fame as O.J. Simpson’s defense attorney, said the threat of bankruptcy shouldn’t be a factor for the clients in the federal case. “You see, it’s not so much about the money.” Cochran said as he busily handed out autographs. “It’s about all these other things and the mechanics to enforce them.” The “other things” include an environmental-medical clinic and research facility, an education trust fund, community revitalization and business redevelopment for affected areas, clean up and remediation of contaminated land. Jere Beasley, who represented many plaintiffs in the federal case, also challenged other plaintiffs’ attorneys to join him in establishing a scholarship fund for children affected by the pollution. Then, he challenged the defendants to match the lawyers’ contributions. U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon, chief judge in Alabama’s Northern District, said the settlement was reach “with God’s blessing.” “I assure all of you that I am going to do whatever the federal law permits me to do to make sure that the promises that have been made will be kept,” said Clemon.
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