California lawyer John Gomez first set foot in Anniston on Monday morning and immediately set out to learn about the area.
What he found, he said, was a community of welcoming and good people who felt wronged and were looking for answers.
Gomez met Monday with hundreds of people, some of who believe they have been affected by PCB contamination, lead poisoning or mold in several public housing projects throughout Anniston at a community meeting led by City Councilman Ben Little.
According to Gomez, the alleged damage could result in extensive legal action. Right now, Gomez said, attorneys are trying to figure out who has been hurt and who are the responsible parties. Litigation could take years, he said.
“I’m just here to see what I can do,” Gomez said. “This is day one of exploration, of discovery, of figuring out what happened here.”
Little said the Monday evening meeting at the City Meeting Center was the first of many to discuss the contaminants and demolition plans. Little said residents in these communities aren’t “thirsty” for legal action, but are suffering because of the contaminants.
Several people at the meeting were relocated after Cooper Homes was demolished last year. The Anniston Housing Authority had planned to rebuild on the site, but plans were scrapped after the Housing Authority’s consultants found PCBs in the soil, years after residents reached a legal settlement with Monsanto, the company that made the PCBs.
Others who live in Glen Addie Homes and Barber Terrace also face relocation. Anniston City Council members discussed in a June meeting plans to level both sites. Barber Terrace is to be replaced with a new set of apartment buildings, and a discovery of mold found growing in the walls of Glen Addie, which was estimated to cost at least $1 million to fix, pressed the Housing Authority to take action.
Little said he, along with many others, doesn’t trust most members of the Housing Authority after Cooper Homes was torn down.
“They are tearing down housing with no plans to build,” Little said. “I think everyone should be halted. If you tear one down, there has to be a commitment that it has to be built back. That is not happening.”
Little said all three sites are in the ward he represents, Ward 3, leading him to believe the Housing Authority intends to displace voters during the next municipal election.
“That’s why everything is focused on Ward 3. I don’t know why they pay so much attention to one individual,” Little said. “That’s the main focus now, getting rid of me.”
Housing Authority leader Willie “Sonny” McMahand declined earlier Monday to comment on the meeting.
Alan Dial, another California lawyer who identified himself as an Anniston native, said he planned to help attorneys involved in any legal action from the sidelines.
Dial, a graduate of Anniston High School, said he went to UCLA on a football scholarship. Dial said many of his football teammates from high school lived at Glen Addie and Cooper.
If legal complaints are filed, Gomez said, they will likely be part of a mass tort, or a civil action in which different plaintiffs can receive different amounts of money in restitution.
“You have some people who get cancer or some people who have complications with childbirth,” Gomez said. “Whatever their complications are, they’re going to differ.”
If it gets to that point, Anniston resident Whitney Forbes said, she and her mother plan to file complaints. Forbes, a former Cooper Homes resident, said mold in the walls made her mother sick. She said the threat presented by the mold caused her to leave after she got pregnant.
“I think these are some good lawyers,” Forbes said. “I think they’re actually going to make the community happy. I think we’re going to be in good hands”
Patricia McGrew, who used to live in a house in the Glen Addie community, said she found it strange the soil on her next door neighbors’ properties both tested positive years ago for PCBs, but hers didn’t. Still, she said, the vegetables in her backyard garden started growing smaller or stopped growing at all. Since then, she said, her family has been plagued with diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.
“We’re on so many different medications right now,” McGrew said.
Like Forbes, McGrew said, her family also plans to file complaints “to try and see about righting the wrongs they did to us.”