State Files Suit And Wins Court Order To Protect Orleans Co. Residents Displaced By Chemical Explosion

Attorney General Spitzer and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Erin Crotty today announced the filing of a lawsuit against an Orleans County chemical company responsible for an explosion that forced the evacuation of a residential neighborhood and has kept more than a dozen families from their homes for more than two months.

Simultaneous with the filing of the suit, on Friday, March 8, the state obtained a temporary restraining order from the court requiring the Diaz Chemical Corp. to continue to pay food and lodging expenses for 15 families who were forced to flee their homes after a January 5 chemical explosion at the company's plant in Holley.

"People living near chemical facilities have a right to breathe clean air, be safe in their homes, and not have their health threatened," Spitzer said. "Diaz has a responsibility to ensure that the residents affected by the January 5 explosion have somewhere to live and carry on with their lives while the potential health risks from the explosion are being assessed."

DEC Commissioner Crotty said: "The explosion and subsequent chemical release from the Diaz plant violated State environmental laws, and we are taking this action to protect public health and the environment in light of potential contamination associated with this incident. We will continue to work with the Attorney General's office, the State Department of Health and local officials to ensure this incident is handled properly, environmental violations at the plant are addressed, and public safety is maintained."

The January 5 explosion released a cloud of chemicals that covered nearby homes, cars, and property with a noxious mixture of hazardous chemicals known as chlorofluorophenols and other substances. Local residents exposed to chemicals from the blast have reported a variety of adverse physical effects including severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, difficulty in breathing, bloody noses, skin burns and irritation, eye injury and irritation, kidney pain, and loss of appetite. Some of the evacuees who have returned to their homes for short periods of time have noted an acrid smell remaining in their homes and have suffered a variety of ill effects after spending only a short time there.

Diaz initially agreed to pay for lodging, meal and laundry expenses for the displaced families, and has been doing so since January. However, Diaz notified state officials on March 2 that it would no longer pay for some families' expenses because it believed their homes no longer contained odors. In court papers filed today, the state challenged Diaz's conclusion, asserting that the absence of odors does not mean that the homes are safe, and arguing that residents should not be forced to return to their homes until Diaz conducts a full state-approved assessment of health risks from the explosion.

The state also secured a court order setting an expedited hearing on its request that Diaz be ordered to provide additional information about the chemicals released by the January 5 explosion, and to conduct additional chemical sampling in and around homes affected by the blast.

The state's lawsuit charges Diaz with causing air pollution in violation of New York law and with maintaining a public nuisance at its plant site through a long history of toxic spills and releases, culminating most recently in the January 5 explosion. In addition to seeking to compel the company to clean up its operations, the lawsuit aims at recovering the lodging, meal and other living expenditures that the displaced families were forced to make as a result of the January 5 explosion.

The case is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Linda White and Christopher Amato and scientists Peter Skinner, Raymond Vaughn and Judith Schreiber.