Protection of people and their property from large corporate polluters is very important. A unique feature of our environmental toxic tort practice is the ability to represent a large number of people harmed by damage to their property. Environmental litigation poses unique legal challenges because of the complex scientific and technical issues frequently addressed, and because of the overlapping authority of numerous administrative agencies and courts at the local, state and federal levels.
There are many types of major environmental pollutions. Examples include air pollution, water pollution and soil contamination. The effect pollutants have on human health is serious and sometimes deadly.
- Air pollution is the release of chemicals and particulates into the atmosphere. Common examples include carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
- Water pollution occurs via surface runoff, leaching to groundwater, liquid spills or wastewater discharges.
- Soil contamination is often caused by hydrocarbons, heavy metals, MTBE, herbicides, pesticides and chlorinated hydrocarbons. Soil can become infertile and unsuitable for plants.
People may be exposed to environmental pollutants through negligence, or as a result of a significant environmental disaster, such as an oil spill, hurricane, explosion or other catastrophic event. Our firm is experienced in these type cases and holds a $700 million verdict for PCB contamination, the largest private environmental settlement in U.S. history.
BP Oil Spill
On April 20, 2010, a massive offshore oil rig known as the Deepwater Horizon exploded and caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico, about 50 miles from Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. Firefighters and the U.S. Coast Guard fought for 2 days to contain the fire, but the rig sank on April 22, releasing nearly a million gallons of diesel fuel into the Gulf waters and creating an unstoppable leak of crude that eventually became the biggest oil disaster the U.S. has ever seen.
The Deepwater Horizon was one of 14 offshore oil rigs owned and operated by Transocean in the Gulf of Mexico. The rig was under lease to oil giant BP for exploratory drilling to the tune of $500,000 per day when the explosion occurred. A total of 126 workers, a combined crew of Transocean and BP employees and independent contractors, were aboard the rig at the time of the explosion. Many of the workers suffered from burn injuries, broken bones and smoke inhalation—four of them critically. Eleven workers were killed.
It took four months to seal the well and stop the flow of oil. As a result, the environmental and commercial impact was unprecedented.
The oil contaminated Louisiana’s fragile wetlands. Environmental experts say that as many as 400 species of Gulf wildlife, from whales to birds, were put at risk and the threat to the Gulf ecosystem is inestimable. It may be years before the extent of the damage is truly known.
Commercial fishing and shrimping operations all along the spill area were shut down for months, putting hundreds of fishermen already hard hit by the economy out of work. The timing couldn’t have been worse, as the disaster hit the $21 billion commercial seafood industry just before harvesting season in mid-May. Other industries affected included shipping, tourism, the restaurant industry, real estate and commercial fishing.
That August, cases related to the BP oil spill were consolidated under U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans. Beasley Allen attorney Rhon Jones, who heads the firms Environmental Law Section, was chosen to help direct litigation as a member of the Plaintiffs Steering Committee in the multidistrict litigation.
Consolidating the cases into a multidistrict litigation (MDL) allowed the committee overseeing the process to put more pressure and focus on moving the case forward, moving cases more quickly to resolution. Lawyers coordinated the litigation and worked together on issues of discovery, resulting in recoveries totaling $11.9 billion.
Coal Ash Spill
In January 2009, Beasley Allen filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of property owners affected by the catastrophic release of over a billion gallons of coal ash sludge. The release occurred on December 22, 2008, when a coal ash impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant ruptured sending a deluge of toxic slurry onto over 300 acres and into nearby waterways. Sludge from the coal ash containment pond contains toxic substances including arsenic, lead, mercury and other heavy metals.
A settlement agreement was reached with the TVA in August 2014 for $27.8 million and allowed more than 800 residents and property owners affected by the coal ash spill to hold TVA accountable for the impact to their way of life. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has described the spill as one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind. The TVA coal ash spill released more than a billion gallons of toxic sludge, and it is estimated coal ash still remains on the bottoms of the Emory and Clinch rivers.