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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

It includes $15 million in damages for current and former residents and $13.9 million for a voluntary buyout of current homeowners. Those who lived longer in Mossville, and closer to Condea Vista, received more. The company admitted no wrongdoing, and residents relinquished their right to sue.

The buyout began in the summer. Residents must sign up within a year and move within three years. Condea Vista has agreed to pay a "replacement cost" determined by experts hired by residents: about three times the assessed value or, on average, about $60,000 per home.

Condea Vista officials say they have no expansion plans for Mossville; the area is likely to become a buffer between the plant and the homes that sit on the other side of the Kansas City Southern railroad tracks, a mile away.

In a statement issued to The Sun, the company said the buyout shows "the community and parish that it wants to be a good corporate citizen and treat people fairly. It has always been Condea Vista's intent to work with our neighbors and come to a fair and equitable settlement."

According to court records and lawyers, however, if Condea Vista had bought out Mossville when first asked, the company might have saved more than $20 million.

Plenty of anger

Flavin Realty, hired by Condea Vista to implement the buyout, put up a trailer this summer behind a barbed-wire fence at Mossville's Michigan and Second avenues. A staff of three real estate agents and a notary public worked seven-day weeks for the first three months to sign up residents. Ninety percent of Mossville has decided to leave.

"I don't think anyone is ever ready to leave their home. It's been extremely hard," says Loran White, a Flavin agent. "But what I'll always remember is the people [who were] glad to go 'God blessing' us."

Leon Jennings was one of the first to sign up. He waited more than three months to move, looking for a new house, packing up his old one (a small, red three-bedroom) and saying goodbye to friends.

Many folks take their houses with them on trucks; ads for house-moving services blanket utility poles. Others left homes behind with signs on the walls: "Toxic Soup Sold Here" and "Contaminated House for Sale: Special Feature -- Plant View and EDC in Water."

There is plenty of anger. Some residents believe their lawyers took too high a fee, 26 percent. Others, such as Prince and Comeaux, are holding out for more of Condea Vista's money. "They are giving us the opportunity to go die somewhere else," says Prince's husband, David.

Jennings understands the anger. But he is befuddled by residents such as Tyrella Brown, 24. After selling her Mossville property to Vista, she bought a new place less than 100 yards from the other side of the Vista plant, in Westlake, where many Mossville children attend school.

In recent weeks, Condea Vista, having learned its lesson in TC Mossville, is striking pre-emptively in Westlake -- and Wagner's Point -- discussing buyouts with its neighbors, including Brown.

"I didn't really think about how close we were to the plant until we moved in -- I can't say why," says Brown. "Now we're talking with Vista about moving again."

Jennings says his new house is a double trailer three miles west, near Sulphur, that his wife, Alberta, made him buy. He spent $56,000 for the trailer, $10,000 for the land and $4,000 to move. With $116,000 from Vista, his retirement is ensured.

He has been in Mossville 45 years. On a recent afternoon, he packs his pickup with family pictures, furniture and his 3-year-old dog, which he calls Dog or whatever name occurs to him.

Preparing to leave his house for the last time, he looks at Condea Vista. As a workingman, he helped clear the land for the plant. He had colon cancer -- his own fault, he figures -- and his wife has respiratory problems, for which he blames the company. Jennings sighs, and he and Dog get into the truck.

"I don't know why I stayed here so close to that plant," he says, shutting the door. "As long as I live, I'll think about this place."

With that, another Mossville man drives away.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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