The Toxic Tort Case

It began in the Panhandle with the promise of great riches, only to crash and burn in a Houston courtroom. The wreckage is still smoldering, and the truth is nowhere to be found.

This was a new concept to Pampa and communities around the plant. They had never had much reason to fear Celanese, which had quietly gone about its business on the prairie for three decades. Upchurch, however, repeatedly insisted that Celanese had already caused many deaths and serious illnesses -- though there was no evidence of it at the time. He told Hood that "the railroad workers death rate is enormous." Before long, he added, "you're going to start to hear where people are going to start dying."

Upchurch was particularly inspired at an April 1989 gathering at the library in Pampa. Apparently, the attorney had heard rumors that some Kingsmill Camp residents were thinking of selling their property to Celanese. He strongly advised them not to, saying doctors would prove that their health had been damaged by emissions from the plant. If some of them sold their land, he said, it would hurt the case for the rest.

The attorney then launched into an emotional appeal, suggesting that if the clients weren't going to stay in the suit for their own well-being they should consider doing it for the greater good.

"We are brave, Wayne Barfield and I and old Haden up there. We are three small people. Three small lawyer voices. We're not anybody of any great importance or significance. In our area, we do the best we can, but we are like a rock, and the water goes around, but you can't budge us.

"And the day the world finds out what's under this earth, you're going to have a state and a nation that's going to rise up in indignation, and Celanese will be through."

In fact, there was already a sense of indignation spreading through Pampa that had nothing to do with toxic emissions. Downtown, at the Coney Island Cafe, where a piece of homemade pie costs 80 cents and everything off the grill comes doused in chili, the lawsuits became a daily topic of conversation. Many of the ranchers, oil-field roughnecks and local movers and shakers who squeezed into the tiny booths for lunch were disgusted by the suits, which they feared would drive Celanese away from Pampa.

"Those greedy people out there saying you poisoned my ground water. Well then, why live out there," says Coney Island co-owner John Gikas. "I know that if I felt any danger from Celanese, I wouldn't be here."

Lilith Brainard worked at the Celanese plant from 1952 to 1958, and says she'd be working there today if she were younger. The company treats people like family, she says. Brainard points out that the plant is built on a site where oil field workers once buried old storage tanks, which might explain the presence of benzene in the ground water.

"You can't blame Celanese for everything that's ever happened," she says. "Our society has become lawsuit happy. My reaction was, those people don't know all the facts. When you don't know all the facts, you're easily persuaded into thinking you can get something for nothing. They knew there wasn't a problem. They just wanted the money."

To Upchurch, Barfield and Haden, such pro-Celanese sentiment reflected the company's pervasive influence in Gray County. They saw conspiracy and cover-up behind every development, and they often warned their clients to beware of wiretaps and company spies. Upchurch in particular was sensitive to the media's treatment of the case. When it was bad -- as it often was in Pampa -- he blamed it on Celanese propaganda and threatened to drag reporters into court.

"These are the most evil people God put on this earth," Upchurch said of Celanese. "The Nazis ... don't know anything to the evil of these no-good people."

Haden reiterated that sentiment at one meeting of Advocates for Acid Rain. "The evil empire over here poisoned the environment, and it hurt our people," he said. "It hurt their property, it hurt their bodies, it hurt their minds."

Haden also passed along what he indicated was frightening evidence accumulated by the doctors and medical experts working on the case. He suggested tests had found "anomalies in the vital organs" that might indicate "toxically induced" cancer.

"Some of you don't know how badly you have been injured," he said. "We are beginning to pick things up on these medical blood tests and X-rays ... For example, the liver counts are real high. I am not going to call any names out, but you will be told."

DROPCAPSuch frightening scenarios, issued relentlessly in phone conversations and meetings, had planted a seed of doubt in and around Pampa. Within a year, the three attorneys had more than doubled their list of clients to about 550. Certainly some of them were sick, with cancer the predominate affliction. But you didn't have to be ill to be a party to the lawsuit, as the lawyers often stressed.

"What we're going on right now is just the fear of cancer," Upchurch explained at an Advocates for Acid Rain meeting. He assured everyone that the possibility of contracting a disease constituted "a very real fear" that justified suing Celanese. And the beauty of it, he insisted, was that any evidence that Celanese had ever harmed anyone was not required.

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