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Paying neighbors to move Mossville: Residents of this Louisiana town, like those in Wagner's Point here, faced a showdown with Condea Vista. Their experience is instructive.

December 06, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Mossville and Wagner's Point are both century-old neighborhoods small enough to have escaped the notice of mapmakers and telephone operators. Each saw the chemical industry establish itself three generations ago, and grow rapidly. When an explosion ripped through the Condea Vista plant in Baltimore in October, paraffins made in Mossville caught fire, sending a huge black cloud over Charm City.

While the plants on the west side of the Calcasieu River dwarf anything in South Baltimore, Wagner's Pointers live in slightly closer proximity -- and to more plants -- than residents here. "Mossville," says Robert Kuehn, director of Tulane University's environmental law clinic, "is the closest parallel in the country to Wagner's Point."

A once heavenly town

"Heaven on Earth!" says Doris Rigmaiden, 42, answering the phone at her Mossville restaurant, Heaven on Earth BBQ. These days, the name, like Rigmaiden's sauce, is thick -- with irony.

Heaven on Earth has a sign on the door: "Give Me Three Good Reasons to Stay in Mossville -- There Are None." Rigmaiden's mother has unexplained respiratory problems. "We're getting out Mossville," Doris Rigmaiden says.

Mossville was once heavenly. Founded by freed slaves such as Jim Moss, who opened the first post office there, Mossville was a country town, where people hunted in the woods, fished in the swamps and raised cows, horses, hogs, rice and sweet potatoes. Folks never missed Sunday services at Mount Zion Baptist Church. Founded in 1866, it too is seeking a new home.

In the 1930s, Louisiana began offering huge tax breaks to attract chemical and oil companies. On the west side of the Calcasieu, )) manufacturers built plants so large they have their own sewage, water and fire departments. At night, the plants resemble cities, their towers so bright, it is hard to see the stars.

Conoco opened a refinery bordering Mossville in 1941. In 1984, part of Conoco's land was taken over by Vista, which expanded west to within 100 yards of Prince's home. Explosions and spills became a part of life.

The ground underneath Vista's plant was no less murky. Ethylene dichloride (EDC), a suspected carcinogen used in the production of vinyl products, had seeped into the ground. By 1987, a residents' lawsuit suggests, EDC had migrated under the fence and, unknown to them, into Mossville.

What residents did know then was that they were sick. Robin Thibodeaux watched her mother die mysteriously and her teen-age daughter contract cancer. Lillie Mae Smith had breast cancer. In addition to her own cancer, Prince's daughter, Deneen, now 24, and a number of neighborhood women developed endometriosis, which is associated with infertility.

Jessie Thomas' teen-age boy had a mysterious benign tumor removed from his kidney. (A study completed this fall by Dr. Marvin Legator of the University of Texas concluded that Mossville residents suffer from higher-than-expected rates of respiratory ailments.)

To be safe, many residents switched to bottled water. But most swallowed their suspicions and heeded the advice on the Pasadena Baptist Church wall: "Long suffering is love's patience."

By 1990, some residents were pushing for a buyout of the neighborhood. According to lawyers, the Condea Vista plant consulted with Prudential Relocation. But Vista executives in Houston, at the company's U.S. headquarters, decided -- to their lasting regret -- not to relocate Mossville.

In 1995, Condea Vista publicly acknowledged that EDC had escaped into Mossville, though the company maintained that the pollution was the fault of the plant's previous owner, Conoco. Residents, wary of being turned down again for a buyout, hired lawyers. They certified about 2,000 current and former residents in a class-action suit against Conoco and Vista.

"We didn't want to sue. We just wanted out," says Sally Comeaux, the lead plaintiff, who lives across VCM Plant Road from Condea Vista. "But it took lawyers to get that company to listen."

In Wagner's Point, residents could show evidence of pollution and of high rates of some illnesses. But they could not prove a link between the two. In Mossville, lawyers avoided that problem by claiming that the EDC contamination, in addition to the accidents and spills associated with the plant, had lowered property values.

The resulting battle was as much political as legal. In 1995, state Sen. James Cox, a strong advocate for the residents, had survived a re-election challenge from Nancy Tower, a Condea Vista executive and plant spokeswoman. The residents' lawyer,

Hunter Lundy, ran for Congress in 1996 but lost to an opponent heavily funded by chemical companies.

Late last year, Conoco executives, angry at Vista for blaming them for the pollution, settled and paid $15 million in damages. This spring, Condea Vista executives met with Lundy in Houston and, expressing a desire to reduce their legal bills and be a "good neighbor," agreed to a $32 million settlement.

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