BLACKWELL - Kim Jernigan believed the local rumors of cancer and early death. But she wasn't convinced they were connected to this northern Oklahoma town's former zinc smelter - not until she got a phone call in 2006. On that morning, school officials told Jernigan, 35, that Kaylee, her then-5-year-old daughter, had tested for dangerous levels of lead in her blood - 3.5 times the amount the federal government says can be harmful, according to testing records.
"It's like a bullet in your head. What do you do?" she said of the news. "I feel trapped."
Jernigan is one of 7,000 people attorneys are seeking to represent in a class-action lawsuit filed Monday in Kay County against the smelter's current owner, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., and six previous owners.
The lawsuit alleges the multinational mining company hid an environmental disaster from the people of Blackwell. Cleanup actions undertaken by the company and overseen by the state Department of Environmental Quality were "woefully inadequate and further jeopardized the safety and welfare of all individuals residing in Blackwell," the complaint alleges.
The smelter operated for 58 years, from 1916 to 1974, and at its peak employed nearly 900 people.
Attorneys from Nix, Patterson and Roach of Texas filed the lawsuit. They seek full remediation of the site, court-supervised medical monitoring for residents and compensation for damage to property values.
The lawsuit also asks that proceeds from a proposed groundwater treatment facility go to the cleanup, not to the company.
The lawsuit doesn't seek damages for personal injuries, like the ones claimed by Jernigan.
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