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BioLab fire fallout

Class-action lawsuits likely as thousands of Georgians claim damages

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Three months after a massive chlorine fire 25 miles east of Atlanta caused the evacuation of at least 11,000 Rockdale County residents, BioLab Inc. is just one step away from finishing its environmental cleanup.

The 3,000 or so people hoping to sue the company are another matter.

Chemicals that were once stored in BioLab's Conyers warehouse -- which exploded into a plume of gray smoke visible 100 miles away -- have been collected and hauled off for proper disposal. Less than a half-mile from the BioLab plant, the pH-balance of Almand Creek, where several hundred fish were killed by chlorine-tainted runoff from fire hoses, has been restored; wildlife is thriving there.

Chlorine also had drained into what's called the VFW Lake, just downhill of the BioLab plant, wiping out more than 2,000 different aquatic animals. Equilibrium has been restored there, too. The only task remaining before BioLab fulfills the requirements set down by the state Environmental Protection Division is to restock the VFW Lake. That has to wait until next spring.

But though it's almost met the standards demanded by the state, BioLab continues to face accusations that are likely to be more complicated, damaging and costly.

Six lawsuits -- three filed in Gwinnett County State Court, the others in Rockdale County Superior Court and Fulton County state and superior courts -- accuse BioLab of negligence that resulted in widespread property and health damages.

"[D]efendants' actions were wanton, willful, and grossly negligent and carried out by ignoring the potential for harm to others," according to a suit filed on behalf of nine residents and businesses, including Thai Palace Restaurant, Lil Foo's Cafe, and Step Away Stables.

The cause of the fire is still unknown, according to BioLab.

Richard Kopelman, a Decatur-based attorney, says he and lawyers representing plaintiffs in five of the six complaints "are aggressively pursuing a class-action lawsuit." Kopelman estimates that about 3,000 people have already joined the lawsuits, and another 1,000 may be added. He says he represents clients who were admitted to local hospitals with chemically burned lungs.

But with a different depiction of the fire's noxiousness offered by BioLab, it's difficult to determine just how damaging the fire really was. All that's certain is the chlorine cloud, sighted as far away as Augusta, rained ash and debris on thousands of homes, cars and businesses, says Bert Langley, manager of the EPD's emergency response branch.

According to BioLab President and CEO Larry Bloom, "We do not have an accurate count of how many people went to the hospital during the fire." Bloom also says that, despite the company's efforts to aid fire victims, he is "not aware of anyone that was seriously injured."

Georgia law governing class-action lawsuits doesn't require that the individual plaintiffs be named during this part of the legal process.

Both the EPD and the Rockdale County Health Department have in fact praised BioLab for its quick response and willingness to help with fallout from the blaze. Even before the fire was completely out, BioLab executives had set up a claims and complaint center at a nearby hotel. So far, about 10,000 claims have been filed, according to Bloom. Of those, about 85 percent have been processed and paid. "Health-related claims," Bloom says, "represent a very small fraction of the total claims received."

"From the get-go, they stood up and said, 'We've got a problem. What can we do to fix it?'" says the EPD's Langley. "BioLab, through the whole process, has done everything we've asked with no qualms or hitches about it whatsoever."

What's more, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which flew a plane outfitted with chemical sensors through the plume five times, only detected hydrogen chloride gas at low levels.

Then again, that was at an elevation of 3,000 feet.

Only delicate science will determine whether concentrations of toxins were higher at ground level. And evidence supporting that claim will surely be raised as the lawsuits move through the courts.

Already, one of the lawsuits is alleging that "hazardous and toxic substances and other contaminants which emanated from the cloud caused by the fire have been detected in the soil, air, and personal and real property."

Michael.wall@creativeloafing.com

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