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ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH: Attorneys compete for control of case as lucrative settlement offered comment: “Equilon Enterprises” is a Shell company.

By Adam Jadhav

With two oil companies floating a settlement offer to Hartford residents who have sat for years on polluted ground, two groups of attorneys are now fighting for control of the case.

It’s just the latest twist in the long and complicated struggle over the 4 million-gallon-lake of gas and oil stagnating underneath Hartford. Residents there have long argued that they’ve gotten sick from fumes that seep up through the ground; they also say the pollution – that has left soil practically flammable – has caused their property values to plummet.

On the table is an $8 million settlement offer from Premcor Refining Group and Equilon Enterprises, of which $3.5 million would go to an Edwardsville law firm in the form of fees. But lawyers from three Missouri firms say their older case, filed initially in 2003, would be unfairly swept away if the settlement is approved. Advertisement

Both sides argue they have the interests of Hartford residents in mind; the question is who gets to proceed.

“Let’s be candid about this: This is boiling down to who is going to get the attorney’s fees,” said Madison County chief civil judge Dan Stack on Tuesday.

Stack heard arguments from both sides in court Monday, just days after the Edwardsville firm Goldenberg, Heller, Antognoli, Rowland, Short & Gori filed a complaint against and moved for a settlement with Premcor and Equilon, former owners of the refinery in Hartford. That law firm previously had sued on behalf of dozens of property owners dating back to 2004.

At last count, the firm represented more than 100 people in Hartford. That number would bloom to more than 1,500 current and past residents if the settlement is approved.

“We think we’ve negotiated a great settlement for the residents of Hartford which will put money – significant money – in their pockets in the near future,” said attorney Elizabeth Heller.

In the proposed settlement – which Stack would have to accept – Premcor and Equilon also promise to provide scientific data to prove that other oil companies are “more culpable” in contributing to the underground oil pollution. If the corporations don’t provide such evidence, the deal would fall through.

Other oil firms, including Apex Oil, Shell Oil, BP Products North America and Sinclair Oil Corp., have been accused of contributing to the pollution in Hartford. A cleanup negotiated with the state Environmental Protection Agency is under way.

One law firm from Kansas City and two from St. Louis say they had been diligently collecting evidence for their own class action suit. They argue they were stonewalled by Premcor and Equilon, while the companies eventually negotiated with others, “circumventing this court’s oversight of the class action,” according to a petition filed Monday.

The petition also claims the Edwardsville attorneys’ case is “a copy-cat of the earlier filed and well-developed” litigation brought by the Missouri attorneys.

Norman Siegel, an attorney from Kansas City who is attempting to block the settlement, limited his comments and referred to the petition, which asks Stack to dismiss – or at least stay – the class-action filed by the Edwardsville firm. Siegel also questions whether the settlement is truly fair to Hartford residents.

Siegel and others had filed a motion for class-action certification – asking to represent plaintiffs en masse – last year. Stack said he had been “about ready to rule” on that case but had delayed a decision to study complex and continually developing case law.

And then the settlement offer – with the Edwardsville firm – appeared.

In a statement, Greg Matula, a spokesman for Premcor’s owner, Valero Energy Corp., called the proposed settlement “very fair to all parties involved.” Regarding allegations that Premcor and Equilon avoided negotiations with one attorney to seek a lower settlement from another, Matula wrote: “We negotiated and settled with the attorney who represented the majority of Hartford residents.”

Stack has yet to rule on the matter but said he is “inclined” to give preliminary approval to the class settlement negotiated by the Edwardsville firm. He said ideally all firms would share in the legal fees.

“Hopefully, we can resolve it soon in a way that gets some relief to these poor people in Hartford,” Stack said.

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