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Sam Bearman resurfaced in the case last fall, after the Conoco letters went out to homeowners in East Hills and along the Bayou Texar. This time, Bearman — who grew up on the Bayou and still has relatives living there — appeared as counsel to the Bayou Texar Foundation, a once-sleepy group that’s jumped on the issue of the Agrico plume. Bearman makes no apologies. “The [CATE] people who lived around the site didn’t have direct contact with contaminants,” he says. “Here we have people who swim in the Bayou, catch fish from the Bayou, live in a cesspool of contaminants. So there’s your direct contact … . Look, many of [the people from the poor neighborhood] got moved. At least they got partial relief. We did the best we could for them. The next issue is, let’s do the same for the people who live near the Bayou Texar.” Bearman called a friend, another Pensacola sole practitioner, named Ben Gordon. Gordon had once been an associate at Levin Middlebrooks, and had even considered CATE’s toxic torts claim back in the early 1990s. “I looked at it superficially,” he says. “I couldn’t generate any interest at the firm. The data from an epidemiological standpoint didn’t look promising.” The Conoco letter, though, did look promising, Gordon says. “I was thinking, is there a claim for nuisance, trespass, dimunition of property value? What about medical monitoring?” Gordon, in turn, called a partner at his old firm, Mike Papantonio. Papantonio is known in Pensacola as an environmentalist; he financed a waterways conservation group called Gulf CoastKeepers. He has also worked on a string of mass tort cases, from breast implants to L-tryptophan. Papantonio likes to operate on a grand scale — his office, an 800-square-foot corner of Levin Middlebrooks, is nothing short of imperial, with six fluted columns and a Roman army helmet for decoration. In person he is not so much larger than life as faster than life, stopping for a few minutes, between videotaping his Conoco commercial and getting on a plane, to spin out his $300 million vision of the Agrico case — tantalizing despite the claim’s utter lack, at least so far, of specificity. Homeowners who’d received the Conoco letter began calling CoastKeepers (its executive director is Papantonio’s chief legal investigator) and the law firm. Levin Middlebrooks lawyers advised callers not to take the $5,000 that Conoco was offering for capping their wells, not to sign Conoco’s waiver, and to find a lawyer. Papantonio and CoastKeepers teamed up with the Bayou Texar Foundation and a local junior college to host a town meeting, so people could come learn about the Agrico plume. For marquee value, Papantonio invited his friend Jan Schlictmann to come speak to the crowd. Margaret Williams and Frances Dunham sat in the audience at the town meeting on Dec. 1, 2000, listening as speakers such as Papantonio, Schlictmann, and Bayou Texar Foundation president Marty Donovan used CATE’s research — Hirschorn’s studies — to slam the EPA’s agreement with Conoco. Williams raised her hand and spoke from the audience a few times. Dunham sat in her seat and seethed. Where, she wondered again, had all of these people been for the last nine years? She was especially furious, she says, when Sam Bearman, representing the foundation, stood up to speak. “After he turned us down!” she says. “That really burned my butt.” Papantonio and Schlictmann say it’s not fair to paint what has happened in Pensacola as a story of rich and poor or black and white. Plenty of the clients they’ve signed up are not Bayou Texar homeowners, but people from the more modest East Hills neighborhood. (One woman represented by Levin Middlebrooks, living in a lovingly tended home in East Hills, was the first African American to integrate that area of the city; another of the firm’s clients was relocated from Margaret Williams’ neighborhood in the EPA buyout to a home with an irrigation well.) Nor, they add, is it fair to call this only a case of property value; Papantonio and his co-counsel say they’ll check out the possibility that people who use the Bayou have been affected by toxins. “Timing is everything,” Papantonio says. “In the business of law, you deal with the most serious problem you have at the time. Who knows what I was doing [when Ben Gordon looked at CATE's case] — asbestos? L-tryptophan? Would I have done anything differently? I don’t know.” Since October, things have moved fast. The city and the water authority, whose attention Deanne Ottaviano could never catch when CATE was trying to block the EPA’s Agrico deal, are talking about joining the suit that Papantonio has lawyers in his firm drafting. His crack investigator, Carol Moore, is interviewing people in East Hills and the Bayou Texar. Ben Gordon is looking for testing experts. Papantonio’s commercial, which advises viewers to call CoastKeepers, began airing in January. Lawyers for Conoco and Agrico continue to insist there’s no case — anyone who had attended the public hearings on the EPA cleanup plan back in the 1990s would have known about the groundwater plume — but they’ve taken Papantonio’s phone calls. “We’ll listen to what their concerns are,” says Conoco spokesman Carlton Adams. “We’ll see if there’s something we can do.” (Conoco backed out of a scheduled late January meeting due to a disagreement with Papantonio over the ground rules.) Papantonio and Schlictmann swear there will be no deal with Conoco and Agrico that does not include CATE. “Write that down,” says Papantonio. “I won’t blink. Really. This law firm doesn’t need the money. It’s a community-wide issue. I can assure you the whole community will be taken care of.” Besides, in Papantonio’s expansive view of the case’s prospects, “all they have to do is pay an extra $10-20 million [to CATE] to make the whole deal go away. That’s what will happen.” Papantonio met with Margaret Williams and Frances Dunham in late December. “When I talked to them,” he says, “I felt almost apologetic, but I didn’t really have reason to.” Williams is praying he never will have that reason. She continues to believe the Conoco letters got the attention they did because some went to people with big, expensive houses. But now she’s holding her breath and trusting Papantonio. “I would like to see CATE get some kind of [client] contract because now it looks like everyone’s on board — the city, the water authority — and I don’t want the pie to get carved up so much that CATE doesn’t get a piece,” she says. “But I’m hoping the story ends up that he’s the benefactor for people who’ve been disenfranchised for so long. I’m hoping for the happy ending.” Return to “Civil Inaction”

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