Plaintiffs say property hurt by oil company

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, November 6, 2001

A trial over alleged property contamination by Chevron duringits oil field activities began Monday with plaintiffs talking aboutan “invisible threat” to landowners and defendants asserting thatthe property remains good and valuable.

In opening arguments, Jeff Thompson, lead attorney for theplaintiffs, described his clients as “working-class people”pursuing the American dream of owning property and building goodlives for themselves. Plaintiffs are Leland and Helen Smith, Nathanand Mary Carter, Gene C. “Moochie” and Margaret S. Britt, and HalRay and Doris Case Owens, who own various property in theBrookhaven oil field west of the city.

“The dream that they built has been contaminated by Chevron,”Thompson said, adding that the purpose of the trial will be forjurors to determine the company’s debt to the landowners.

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Bobby Meadows, lead attorney for the defendant, said Chevron’sactivities in the Brookhaven Oil Field have been going on since1943. He said the drilling and other work was necessary, naturaland the plaintiffs knew about it before acquiring the property inthe field.

Meadows urged jurors to listen to the whole trial and saidevidence would show that the property in question “is good andvaluable, and there is nothing on it or under it that would hurtanybody.”

The trial’s start was delayed about an hour Monday as sidesdisputed exhibits that were to be used in opening arguments.

Meadows objected to the relevancy of several “hot documents”related to oil field-wide radiation, while Thompson said theplaintiffs must be able to attack the adequacy of Chevron’sclean-up efforts. While admonishing both sides for the delay, JudgeKeith Starrett allowed some records to be used and excluded othersuntil their relevancy could be supported during trial.

Once opening arguments got under way, Thompson outlined theplaintiffs’ case and the “invisible threat” posed to his clients bycontaminated ground water. He said what happens on the surface isconnected to what happens underneath.

Thompson also hammered at a remediation plan Chevron undertookafter subsequent oil field owners, which are now bankrupt, wereunable to pursue clean-up efforts. Chevron sold the field in 1990to Florabama and it later sold the field to COHO Resources,Inc.

The plan involved removal of thousands of feet of oil flow linesand barrels of contaminated soil, including over 31,000 barrelsfrom the Carters’ property. The plan received approval from theMississippi Oil and Gas Board, but Thompson questioned the adequacyof the state agency’s inspection.

“I think the evidence in this case will prove to you the letteris not worth the paper it’s written on,” Thompson said, referringto a plan approval letter from the agency.

Thompson asked jurors to “not be fooled” by the defendant’s caseand its claims of responsible activity. He said his clients’property had been damaged and indicated a risk of future damageremains.

“This case is about the uncertainty of what’s still there,”Thompson said.

During his turn before jurors, Meadows said there is no evidenceof property damage, and plaintiffs’ claims do not hold up.

Since 1993, when discussion of a lawsuit began, he said propertyin the Brookhaven Oil Field has been sold and banks have loanedmoney on the property. One exhibit he used showed a $58,000 loanthe Britts took out in 1999 against the property, and Meadows saidthey are not alone.

“Every bank in the Brookhaven community is loaning money on thefield,” Meadows said.

Meadows cited an appraisal placing the four plaintiffs’properties values at $899,000. He said the land in the field is asvaluable or more so than any other in the county.

Addressing plaintiffs’ claims of radioactivity concerns, Meadowscited an independent survey of groundwater samples that showed allmaterials to be below Environmental Protection Agency standards.Plaintiffs have disputed the testing methods.

“There is nothing wrong with the groundwater in theseplaintiffs’ property,” Meadows said.

Meadows went on to discuss a variety of common householdproducts and daily activities that produce low level radiationsimilar to levels in dispute in the case.

“Not everything that is radioactive is dangerous…,” Meadowsaid. “It is wrong to suggest otherwise.”

Meadows concluded with comments from plaintiffs’depositions.

In their interviews prior to the trial, various plaintiffsdiscussed offers they’d received to sell the property, its risingvalues and activities such as hunting, fishing and gardening thatthey do on the land.

Meadows highlighted that some of the plaintiffs said no one hadshown them there was a problem with the groundwater and that oneplaintiff said she was “happy” with the work Chevron was doing.

Sixteen people, including 12 jurors and four alternates, havebeen empaneled for the trial. The trial is expected to talk abouttwo weeks.