Attorney: Claims against Belpre Shell plant steady decades later

BELPRE — People who worked at the Shell Plant (now Kraton, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell) in Belpre before 1981 still have avenues open for compensation claims if they are diagnosed with mesothelioma or another medical condition related to asbestos exposure.

Recent advertising that appeared in The Marietta Times has served as a reminder for former employees of the plant to levy claims for damages against the company.

Multiple firms across the country tout on their websites that they fight for compensation.

Although there isn’t a overall deadline to apply for damages, if a diagnosis of a medical condition such as lung cancer or mesothelioma can be directly connected to past employment, a claim must be filed within two years of that diagnosis.

“We’ve handled thousands of cases in the tri-state area, the Shell plant accounts for a lot of cases out there, the bulk of the cases come from chemical plants and powerhouses,” said Leif Ochletree, of the Pittsburgh law firm Goldberg, Persky and White.

“It really is a shame,” he said, referring to the number of people made ill by working conditions at the plant.

And while the term “cancer valley” is lobbed around Mid-Ohio Valley bars as plant workers stop in after 12-hour shifts, the claim system still works in the favor of the industry, explained Eric Fitch, environmental science professor at Marietta College.

“This is not a story of the moment but an ongoing narrative,” he said.

“Many environmental and occupational exposure-related illnesses are not acute, they develop over time,” Fitch said. “So someone who was exposed during that tragedy may only now be manifesting symptoms, but not bad enough to be seen by medical staff until their conditions worsen.”

“It’s a little counterintuitive,” Ochletree added. “There’s a latency period, so it’s not uncommon to get sick 30 or 40 years or more after the exposure. You would think it would be declining by now, but it’s actually not tapering off, and people are living longer, into their 80s and 90s.”

Ochletree said the medical community in the area is familiar with these conditions.

“Memorial (Health System) has a great staff. We have a client who just got out of the hospital, I did a deposition in the nursing care home. We have lots of clients in that area. The physicians know to ask, ‘Where did you work?'” he said.

Fitch said he is also concerned by the predicted loosening of environmental restrictions on industry under the current administration and Republican-dominated U.S. Senate.

“We’re in a failing red queen scenario from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ where we must run ever more quickly to stay in the same spot,” Fitch said.

As an example, he pointed to another event associated with the same plant. The plant suffered a large fire and explosion more than 20 years ago, when a critical failure occurred in the K-1 unit of the plant early in the morning on May 27, 1994.

That explosion shook Belpre, Parkersburg and Vienna and killed three employees: Mike Harris of Reedsville, Gary Reed of Williamstown and George Nutter, of Coolville.

“Even at the point of the explosion the (plant officials and emergency response teams) only evacuated 1,500 people out of the residential population of 6,800 in Belpre at the time. But if you look at the location of the plant and the prevailing winds and reports of smoke plumes, more than just employees were impacted in that tragedy,” Fitch said.

For those affected by that event, there is no simple path to compensation.

However, for Shell employees who worked in the plant before 1981, there are two routes for claiming damages, Ochletree said.

“There’s no settlement, there’s been a lot of confusion about that. There are situations where a lawsuit can be filed against companies that still are in business, or you can go through the bankruptcy trust system, where the assets are managed to pay claimants,” he said.

The process doesn’t demand a lot from the claimants.

“We do everything we can, we come to the claimant’s home, get the records, and do a deposition,” he said. “The claimant might have to appear at trial, although that is unlikely, it doesn’t happen all that much.”

Janelle Patterson can be reached at jpatterson@mariettatimes.com.

Michael Kelly can be reached at mkelly@mariettatimes.com.