A team of lawyers from two national firms has taken an interest in a small village with a big problem.
As part of their ongoing investigation into the effects of lingering contamination from the former New Jersey Zinc/Mobil Chemical Superfund site at DePue, attorneys from Korein Tillery of Chicago and Nix, Patterson & Roach of Texas will visit the village next week to meet with residents.
"One possible outcome of this investigation is the filing of a class action lawsuit against Exxon Mobil, Viacom and Horsehead Industries," said Eric Wetzel, a spokesman for the legal team. The three corporations are the potentially responsible parties for the Superfund site.
One of the attorneys is Klint Bruno, a Bureau County native who now practices law in Chicago. Growing up in Spring Valley, Bruno knew current DePue village president Eric Bryant as his high school basketball coach.
According to Wetzel, Bryant contacted Bruno last summer to share "what he felt was a problem for the city and what was then a pending legal action by the city against Exxon Mobil."
From 1903 until 1987, a smelting plant operated in DePue that refined ore containing toxic heavy metals such as zinc, cadmium, arsenic, chromium, copper and lead and produced marketable metals like zinc dust, which was used in the automobile industry, Wetzel said. From 1966 through the late 1980s, a diammonium phosphate fertilizer plant also operated in DePue.
Toxins from the plant could enter people's bodies in several ways, Wetzel said. Contamination in Lake DePue and other surface water carries the toxins, which could also be transported by air from exhaust released during the plant's operation and from the wind blowing over the "piles of toxic waste" left by the smelting process. The legal team alleges an additional means of exposing residents to the toxins.
"We believe that large amounts of this â€˜chat,' this gravelly waste material that contained toxic metals, were given away to local people for civic projects like road paving," Wetzel said.
Many smelting facilities built up huge piles of waste material that they didn't know what to do with, he said, and in some cases they encouraged local residents to come and take it for free to use, for example, to landscape their yards or pave roads or athletic tracks.
"Heavy metals do not break down. They can be moved around, but they don't disintegrate naturally. This is one of the ways that toxic waste stays in communities for decades."
Even though the Environmental Protection Agency has studied the DePue site for decades, cleanup efforts have focused mainly on the industrial sites, not on surrounding residential properties, Wetzel said.
Since Bryant and Bruno spoke, the legal team has been conducting a round of thorough tests of residential properties, including homes and lawns, throughout DePue, Wetzel said.
"Preliminary results of those tests indicated a serious community-wide contamination involving lead, cadmium, arsenic, zinc and possibly other toxins," Wetzel said.
Health problems associated with these toxins include brain damage, cancer, learning disabilities, kidney disease and reproductive problems, he continued.
"They can build up in the body, lodge in the brain and bones and cause health problems years after initial exposure, and they are particularly dangerous to young children," he said.
Wetzel noted that Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has identified levels of toxic heavy metals in a number of DePue homes, and he cited a 2001 health study showing a large cluster of multiple sclerosis cases in the community and suggesting zinc contamination as a likely cause.
"This problem has lingered long enough, and it's time for somebody to do something about it," Wetzel said.
According to Bryant, the legal team already represents several citizens of DePue and will be available throughout next week to meet with other residents, provide information and answer questions from those wanting to benefit from future legal action.
The legal team will be available for in-person meetings 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Friday at the VFW Hall, located at 202 W. First St., DePue. No appointments are necessary.
In 1999, the New Jersey Zinc-Mobil Chemical site in DePue, population 1,800, was added to the National Priorities List of Superfund hazardous waste sites.