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Suit accuses Coronet plant of contamination

Three law firms, including the one Erin Brockovich works at, are representing about 700 who live or lived near the company near Plant City.

Published March 19, 2004

TAMPA - The law firm that employs environmental celebrity Erin Brockovich filed suit Thursday against Coronet Industries, the company some Plant City residents accuse of poisoning them.

The suit, anticipated for months, comes a week after state health officials declared in the strongest terms yet that the plant is not a public health threat.

Three out-of-state firms, including Masry & Vititoe, the California firm for which Brockovich works, filed the suit in Hillsborough Circuit Court. A similar suit was filed in October by three Florida lawyers.

The plaintiffs include about 700 people who live or lived near the aging plant, which turns phosphate into a supplement for animal feed and has a long history of environmental violations.

The suit seeks compensation for property damage, personal injury and continuous medical monitoring.

The suit alleges the factory contaminated water supplies, crops, livestock and property and accuses the operators of failing to warn neighbors of the danger and misrepresenting or omitting information about the pollution. This has resulted, the attorneys say, in economic, emotional and physical harm, even causing the deaths of some people living around the factory.

The defendants are Coronet; Coronet's owners, including Mitsui and Co., one of the biggest companies in the world; and the plant's previous owners.

Coronet issued only a short statement in response, saying the suit has no merit. In January, Coronet announced it would close the facility March 31 because it was no longer profitable.

Since last summer, a battery of government agencies has been investigating to determine whether pollution from the plant is causing an epidemic of cancers and other diseases, as many residents fear. A final report is expected this fall.

So far, authorities have found elevated levels of arsenic, boron and other chemicals in about 40 wells near the plant but say the levels are not high enough to cause serious or widespread health problems. A state study released earlier this month determined that cancer rates near the plant were less than the state average.

A Masry & Vititoe spokesman called the reports "bad science."

[Last modified March 19, 2004, 01:20:38]

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