CHARLESTON - Recent class-action lawsuits, according to Charleston attorney Stuart Calwell, have left a bad taste in people's mouths.
A recent tire fire in Nitro, he added, put something much worse in them, as well as their lungs.
And he's hoping his lawsuit against the companies involved will help solve both problems.
Calwell is representing Nitro resident Stephen D. Gilliam, who filed a lawsuit May 5 in Kanawha Circuit Court against U.S. Tire Recovery and ChemValley Properties, stating the companies are responsible for a fire that broke out in a tire warehouse May 4-5 and effectively shut the town down.
Gilliam is listed on the complaint as representing himself and a class of others similarly situated. Calwell hopes anyone affected by the fire places their name on the lawsuit.
But he says he understands why people shy away from class-action suits.
"Some of them turn my stomach," said Calwell of The Calwell Practice. "The people get a flashlight and a coupon, and the lawyer walks out with $10 million.
"That should be criminalized. That's left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths."
As did the fire that burned in a 19th Street warehouse owned by U.S. Tire Recovery, which had been storing the tires without a permit and was ordered to clean up the warehouse by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Calwell says dangerous particles known as "dioxins" were released into the air when the tires were burning.
He has another pair of class-action lawsuits stemming from dioxin exposure in Nitro against Mansanto Co. that are pending in Putnam Circuit Court.
"A whole host of other compounds can be generated," Calwell said. "Most of the dioxin generated today is generated by the burning of municipal waste because there is a lot of plastic in that that is burned.
"That (tire) fire has the potential of having generated a witch's brew of extraordinarily toxic molecules that fix themselves to soil and attach to indoor house dust and get inside people and set up shop."
Studies have shown an increased exposure to dioxin leads to an increased chance of developing cancer. It was a contaminant in Agent Orange, a chemical weapon used in the Vietnam War.
Calwell and attorney David Carriger have been collecting samples from Nitro using a process called "molecular fingerprinting."
Calwell explained that compounds produced through combustion have a certain set of patterns on them. He is trying to locate dioxin samples from houses that match samples from the fire site to prove a connection.
Circuit Judge Paul Zakaib had granted a temporary injunction, halting the cleanup of the site until Calwell and his experts could inspect it.
"We wanted to come in as quick as we could before they hauled everything away," Calwell said.
The state Fire Marshal's office recently declared the fire was the result of arson, though that will have little effect on Calwell's case.
"The driving principle of the civil action is that stuff was improperly stored and it was perceivable that it could have caught on fire," he said.
"Why would anybody want to set fire to a pile of tires?"
Those who were provided a nuisance by the fire, which Calwell claims resulted in citizens only getting brown water in their homes, can now attach their name to Calwell's list.
"I don't know how many people have signed up, but it's a significant number," he said. "We've got a steady stream. Basically the class action, assuming it's certified, would address all the people who fit the class definition - the people in the area of the airborne transport of these compounds."
If the blame falls on U.S. Tire, ChemValley Properties or any tire recycling company later added as a defendant, then each member of the class will get an individual damages trial.
And Calwell hopes that can put a good taste back in people's mouths.
"The thing is, it was an improper dump," he said. "It was an unlawful dump. That's the reason these things are regulated.
"Hell, tires can be very toxic."
Kanawha Circuit Court case number 06-C-855