The California law firm made famous in the movie about environmental activist Erin Brockovich has taken the local case involving pollutants dumped at the former site of the New York Air Brake plant here decades ago.
The Vititoe Law Group has agreed to represent residents who believe they have suffered health problems from the toxic chemicals dumped at the Starbuck Avenue site. If the case goes forward, the lawsuit most likely would be against New York Air Brake; Knorr-Bremse Group, the company’s current parent company, and SPX Corp., the North Carolina company that was involved in previous cleanup efforts.
The Vititoe law firm was featured in the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich” that starred Julia Roberts as the environmental activist who uncovered toxic chemicals in 1993 that emanated from the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in California. The law firm, then headed by the late attorney Edward L. Masry, won a $333 million class-action lawsuit on behalf of about 650 clients who suffered a variety of health problems.
“They’re taking on our case for us,” said Scott W. Barker, who grew up on East Division Street and suffers from a nerve disorder.
Contacted in California, Robert W. Bowcock, an environmental investigator with Ms. Brockovich, said Wednesday the firm will represent plaintiffs “impacted within the zone area” — the neighborhood near the Starbuck Avenue site.
Four attorneys were meeting with Mr. Bowcock later on Wednesday to see how to “investigate and prosecute the case.” Los Angeles attorney Thomas V. Girardi, perhaps the “best environmental lawyer in the country,” may end up being the lead litigator, Mr. Bowcock said.
A health investigation that looks into medical facts and toxicology of those exposed to the chemicals will be the next step. Mr. Bowcock also plans to return in the spring to conduct testing near the site, he said.
Mr. Barker; his brother, James P. Barker, and a former neighbor, Andrew G. Williams, who now lives on Washington Street, got Ms. Brockovich involved in looking into their concerns about the pollutants. In August, about 200 residents met with Mr. Bowcock.
The group of residents who recently expressed health and environmental concerns associated with the Air Brake site have started offering retainer information forms from people who lived in a state Department of Environmental Conservation study area surrounding the site and those who have suffered chronic health problems, cancer or birth defects.
Residents may access the forms through a group website, www.nyabsuperfund.com. The retainer covers only physical damages for now and not property damage losses, Mr. Barker said.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Bowcock and Christopher Levinson, an administrator with the law firm, attended a DEC public informational meeting about the contaminants and the agency’s cleanup efforts over the years. About 80 people who live or had lived in the neighborhood attended the meeting in Watertown.
Since then, DEC announced plans to conduct a 10-year review of the cleanup of the creek and nearby tributaries that is expected to be completed this spring. The state Department of Health also may conduct a study on patterns of birth defects, cancer and low birth rates possibly associated with pollutants dumped at the site.
In 2008, DEC found unacceptable levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, an industrial solvent used at the Air Brake plant decades ago, in four on-site buildings and a house at 431 E. Hoard St., which subsequently was equipped with an air-mitigation system.
That year, the DOH and DEC conducted soil vapor intrusion testing on more than 50 structures, including four buildings on the Air Brake site, 44 houses, North and Starbuck elementary schools and a church for TCE vapor intrusions. The testing determined whether vapor from the contaminants was entering the structures.
About 1,200 parcels were in the testing area, which primarily extended north and west of the company’s Starbuck Avenue campus.
In 1995, DEC dredged Kelsey Creek and removed contaminants and soil. Those were taken to the Purdy Avenue and industrial landfills, where they were capped off.