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Polluted village's residents say cash is cold comfort Du Pont settlementwith families in N.J. lawsuit is $38.5 million


POMPTON LAKES, N.J. -- The Colfax boys know better than to dip their toes in Acid Brook. Never mind that their father splashed in the stream as a child, even drinking from it on steamy summer days. It is off limits now, just like the abandoned explosives plant owned by E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., which lies just beyond their yard.

"Everything around here is contaminated, from what I hear," said Steve Colfax, the father of the two boys. "I'm not taking any chances," he said, peering at the Du Pont property from behind his screen door.

When Du Pont announced recently that it would pay $38.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by dozens of families who live near its plant here, many residents found it cold comfort.

The suit, filed in 1993, accused Du Pont of improperly dumping lead, mercury and other hazardous materials into Acid Brook, which runs from the factory grounds through town and was named long before any lawsuits were filed.

The plaintiffs said the toxins, which spread to their yards whenever the brook overflowed, damaged their property values and, in about 150 cases, their health.

Du Pont admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, one of the largest ever in an environmental case in New Jersey. Company officials said they agreed to a settlement because of rising litigation costs.

'It's still not enough'

Colfax, who left the neighborhood known as Du Pont Village after high school but returned recently with his family, is especially bitter: He lived in Pennsylvania when the lawsuit was filed and was not asked to participate, he said. He heard about the suit, and the reasons for it, only after he rented the house next to the plant site.

Only then, Colfax said, did he hear that Du Pont had found traces of lead and mercury along Acid Brook in 1990, and that men in protective suits had tested his neighbors' yards for toxins. Only then did he hear the stories from people he grew up with, who have the same ailments he has: muscle aches, hearing problems and lack of energy.

Joseph Ballo Jr., whose father worked at the Du Pont plant for 38 years but did not participate in the suit because he feared his pension would be taken away, said he had hoped to raise his own children in the neighborhood.

Now, though, he wanted to take them to another part of the country. The company was good to his father, Ballo said, but the whole family cannot stop worrying about health.

"They could give me $5 million tomorrow and it's still not enough money, because we don't know if we're going to get really sick someday," said Ballo, whose parents' property backs up to Acid Brook. "It's a shame, because this is a nice place to live."

It is the kind of neighborhood where children congregate on curbs and pedal bikes down wide streets, where most yards have basketball hoops or trampolines. But the streets around the old plant also seem unnaturally still and sequestered from the rest of Pompton Lakes, a town of 11,000 about 25 miles northwest of New York City. Even with people around, the place feels deserted.

Plant closed in 1994

The Du Pont factory, known as Pompton Lakes Works, closed in 1994, but over the last seven years the company has spent more than $130 million cleaning the brook, yards throughout the neighborhood and the 580-acre tract it still owns. It is also working to purify ground water that flows beneath the neighborhood to nearby Pompton Lake.

While a 1994 review by the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry found that the site itself was a "public health hazard," studies by the state and others have not concluded that residents' ailments were caused by the high lead and mercury levels around the plant.

But residents insist the contamination has caused health problems ranging from hyperactivity to cancer. About 150 of the 427 plaintiffs in the suit said the contamination had made them sick. Others said it had ruined their quality of life, because they worried so much about developing serious illnesses.

The largest award in the settlement, $271,000, will go to a hyperactive 13-year-old boy with unusually high amounts of lead in his blood, according to court papers. The lowest award, $25,000, will go to 25 children who have not shown any symptoms, but will need to monitor their health.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs have said most awards range between $70,000 and $80,000.

The chemical company has also offered to buy the home of anyone who wants to leave Du Pont Village, a hamlet developed by the company for its workers at the turn of the century. Michael and Patricia Corcoran, who bought their house on Howard Street 24 years ago, decided to accept the offer after several years of worrying about their health.

Mrs. Corcoran, who said she spends $60 a month on bottled water even though town officials say the municipal water supply is clean, said her three sons played in Acid Brook in the 1970s, before anyone knew about the pollution. Her husband grew tomatoes and cucumbers in their yard for years. A rock garden is all that remains.

'Such heartache'

"We have such heartache over this," Mrs. Corcoran said, looking over the yard where her family spent countless summer afternoons. "We had the intention of staying here the rest of our lives. Now, I feel in my heart that they should have leveled this whole neighborhood and turned it into an industrial park. Nobody should be living here anymore."

The family received a portion of the settlement, and while Mrs. Corcoran would not reveal the amount, she said it would be vTC eaten up by health insurance bills.

She and her husband have high blood pressure, she said, and she is recovering from a hysterectomy, all of which she blames on the pollution.

"Hopefully we'll have a comfortable life after this, but we're not rich," she said, standing amid packing boxes in her dining room. "I'm not happy with anything at all."

Next door to the Corcorans, Abdullah Caymaz is growing eggplants and peppers in soil he bought from a nursery. He is also starting to recruit past and current residents of Du Pont Village for a second lawsuit, meant to compensate people who did not participate in the first. While he worries about the pollution, he said, he is more concerned about the value of his home, which he bought for $145,000 in 1989.

"I dreamed about a place like this since I was a child," said Caymaz, who is raising three children on his own. "But last week I talked to somebody who said, 'I wouldn't pay a dollar for any place on your street.' Something has been taken from me. Now I want to get something back."

Pub Date: 7/10/97

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