Attorney concedes rock mine blameless in Acreage cancer; pursues Pratt

Two years after attorneys blasted Palm Beach Aggregates for causing elevated levels of brain cancer among Acreage residents, the same lawyers have given the rock mining giant a clean bill of health.

While formal agreements to settle 16 lawsuits have yet to be inked, an attorney who represents Acreage homeowners and cancer victims said it appears the massive excavating operation off Southern Boulevard didn’t spew cancer-causing toxins throughout the rural community after all.

“The stuff they do does not appear to be a factor in the elevated levels of brain cancer,” said attorney Mara Hatfield, who made the allegations in lawsuits she and attorney Jack Scarola filed on behalf of current and former residents of the sprawling community north and west of Royal Palm Beach.

However, the looming settlements don’t mean litigation is over. Hatfield and Scarola will continue to pursue defense contractor Pratt & Whitney for the elusive contamination that prompted state and federal health officials to designate a pediatric cancer cluster in The Acreage four years ago.

But, in keeping with the strange twists that have accompanied the rare designation, most of those involved aren’t talking about the latest development.

Fearing that a publicity campaign waged by Scarola and Hatfield would hurt the companies’ chances of getting a fair trial, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Joseph Marx last year issued a gag order, prohibiting lawyers on both sides from talking about the lone case that is pending in state court.

The order, being contested by Hatfield and Scarola, is to be reviewed by newly elected Circuit Judge Jaimie Goodman when he takes the bench next month. Before the August election, Scarola, who supported Goodman’s opponent, blasted the labor attorney for spending more than a half-million dollars of his own money in three campaigns to win a judicial seat.

In the meantime, even though the other 15 cases are in federal court, neither Pratt & Whitney nor Aggregates officials would talk about any of the lawsuits for fear of being held in contempt of court. Hatfield would talk about the proposed settlements only in limited terms.

She said the rock mining company, which sold some of its pits at 20-Mile Bend for more than $200 million to regional water managers looking for water storage solutions, has agreed to pay for part of the cost of an investigation that ultimately cleared it of causing contamination.

Soil and water tests initially indicated the digging operations likely released cancer-causing radiation and heavy metals into the water supplies of the community where most of the 40,000 residents rely on wells. Further investigation disputed that.

“We’re significantly concerned about cadmium and non-naturally occurring radiation,” she said. “Theirs is naturally occurring radiation and non-metals.”

The company agreed to pay part of the costs of the soil and water tests — conducted by labs hired by Hatfield’s law firm — because the company benefited from the investigation, she said. “We’ve squelched whatever concern there was,” she said. The tests, she said, cost less than $500,000.

That part of the tentative agreement will settle a case filed on behalf of thousands of Acreage landowners, who claim the cancer-cluster designation and publicity it generated depressed their property values. The terms of that settlement will become public once a federal judge agrees to make it a class-action lawsuit. The members of the class will have to approve the terms.

However, it is unlikely the terms of settlements in the 15 personal injury lawsuits will be revealed. Those lawsuits were filed on behalf of Acreage residents who lost loved ones or suffer from cancer they blamed on Palm Beach Aggregates and Pratt & Whitney.

Pratt will continue to fight allegations that chemicals it used at its jet engine and rocket manufacturing plant on 7,000 acres off the Beeline seeped into the ground, travelled more than 6 miles south and ended up in The Acreage residents’ wells. In court papers, the company vehemently denies the allegations.

In addition to the litigation filed by Hatfield and Scarola, Pratt also faces a class-action and a personal injury lawsuit filed by West Palm Beach attorney Craig Zobel. While thrown out by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp, his rulings were reversed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in October. In a blistering opinion, it reinstated the two lawsuits.

The last years have been difficult ones for Acreage residents. Clouds began hovering over them when parents of children stricken with cancer called for an investigation. The skies darkened when state health officials in 2010 confirmed the community’s worst fears by designating the area as a cancer cluster.

While 13 children were diagnosed with brain or central nervous system cancers from 1993 to 2008, the designation was made because three children developed similar cancers from 2005 to 2007 — more than twice the number expected. Four additional children were diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008 and one in 2009.

However, as is the case in most cancer clusters around the country, despite extensive soil and water testing by state and local agencies, no cause was ever found. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 confirmed the findings of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. It found “no indication of widespread ground water or soil contamination; nor any evidence suggesting the existence of any significant localized source(s) of contamination.”

In a letter to Palm Beach County Commissioner Paulette Burdick on Sept. 26, Palm Beach County’s Health Department Director Dr. Alina Alonso said she was “happy to report” no additional cases of pediatric brain cancer were diagnosed in The Acreage from 2010 to 2012, the last year reports are available.

Hatfield, however, isn’t convinced. In the same letter, Alonso reported 23 adults in The Acreage had been diagnosed with brain cancer from 2008 to 2011. While Alonso said that is lower than the state rate, Hatfield disputed her conclusion.

Burdick said she was heartened by Alonso’s report. But, she said, many are still concerned about cancer rates in The Acreage.

“You’ve got to have faith and trust in the department that is responsible for protecting the health and welfare of our residents,” she said. “If nothing ever surfaces again … hopefully, time will allay their fears.”

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