Orlando Utilities Commission, Developers Accused of Polluting Communities with Cancerous Toxins

The Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC), a municipally owned public utility providing electric and water service to Orlando citizens, contaminated the properties of more than 30,000 residents with toxic byproducts from the utility’s coal-fired power plants at the Curtis H. Stanton Energy Center, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday, December 20, 2018.

The lawsuit, brought by residents of Stoneybrook, Avalon Park, Eastwood and other communities in the area immediately north of the power plant, argues that residents have been deprived of fair use of their properties and need remediation to prevent future harm. The plaintiffs also allege that developers of this area — including Lennar Corporation, U.S. Home Corporation, Avalon Park Group Management, Inc., and the principal of Avalon Park Group, Beat Kahliare liable for property damage as they marketed, developed, built, and managed neighborhoods in the shadow of the OUC’s coal plant without warning residents of the severe health risks while also failing to address the significant pollution.

The lawsuit—the first of its kind in the state—was filed after months of investigation and testing. Test results of soil samples conducted by experts on behalf of the plaintiffs’ legal team revealed that pollution from the power plant has contaminated homes in these communities with carcinogenic toxins at levels in excess of state and federal regulatory standards critical to protecting human health. The OUC purchases its coal for the Stanton Power Plant from the Illinois Basin, which has the highest radioactivity of any coal in the continental United States.  The plant emits coal combustion residuals, coal dust, harmful organic compounds, and metals that have laced plaintiffs’ properties with carcinogenic radionuclides and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, including Benzo(a)Pyrene (“BaP”) and metals in concentrations exceeding federal and Florida regulatory standards. In addition, studies also found the presence of high levels of polonium—a highly radioactive byproduct of coal ash associated with a range of cancers, genetic disorders, and other adverse health effects.

“This area is marketed as the perfect environment to raise your child but, despite being told this was a safe place for our family, our property was inundated with toxic contaminants from the coal plant,” said Michelle Irizarry, a plaintiff in the suit and a resident of Avalon Park. “As a parent, it’s heartbreaking to know I put my children in harm’s way because I was being misled about the true risks.”

As a result of the contamination, pediatric central nervous system, blood, and bone cancer rates in the area surrounding OUC drastically exceed national levels. Evidence shows that the incidence ratio for central nervous system cancer in the area is five to ten times higher than the ratio nationwide. Additionally, the incidence ratio of Ewing’s Sarcoma, an extremely rare form of cancer that occurs primarily in children and young adults, is approximately nine times higher than the rate expected for the area. While this cancer normally appears in only 1.7 children out of a million who are younger than 15, there are new cases of Ewing’s Sarcoma occurring every few years in the area near the coal plants.

“We are bringing this lawsuit after many months of investigation, as well as testing of the local community’s soil and evaluating its effect on residents,” said Theodore J. Leopold of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, Co-Lead Counsel for the plaintiffs in the suit. “These claims are filed with a tremendous amount of due diligence and scientific evidence. The connections we’ve seen between the coal plant, property damage, health issues, and child cancer are astounding and should be treated as a national outrage.”

The OUC, which bills itself as “The Reliable One,” owns and operates the Stanton Power Plant, located in east Orange County twelve miles southeast of Orlando. Although the Stanton Power Plant also includes two natural gas-fired energy generating units, the portions of the Stanton Power Plant that are relevant to the lawsuit are units No. 001 and No. 002. These two coal-fired energy generating units began commercial operations in 1987 and 1996, respectively, in order to accommodate rapid projected growth in Orlando and to transition from the volatile oil market to coal.

Although the OUC operated under friendly conditions with the local community for a long time, news of the pollution has shocked many parents and local activists in recent years. Earlier this month, public pressure led OUC to announce that it is reassessing its coal plants, with the possibility of shuttering their doors.

“The residents of Southeast Orlando are furious—and they should be,” said Steve Morrissey, with the law firm of Susman Godfrey, L.L.P, Co-Lead Counsel for the plaintiffs in the suit. “They were deceived by OUC, by the developers, and by the press that lauded Orlando for its commitment to clean energy. It’s critical that OUC stop its ongoing pollution and that they and the developers do everything that is necessary to address the damage they have caused and to prevent further harm in the future.  We will stand by the many Orlando residents seeking justice and look forward to our day in court.”

The lawsuit filed Thursday seeks class-action status on behalf of the residents in the Avalon Park community and demands a trial by jury on: compensatory damages; permanent injunctive relief; the prompt testing, assessment, excavation, and removal of all radioactive waste and related contaminants from the properties of the plaintiffs, class and subclass members; attorneys’ fees under and costs of suit as provided for by law; and such other relief the Court may deem just and proper. Plaintiffs’ legal team is continuing to investigate the matter by identifying individuals who have been harmed and additional businesses that may be responsible for the pollution under Florida law.

This story has been picked up by many news outlets including Bloomberg Law, Law360, The Orlando Sentinel, and Orlando Weekly. 

The lawsuit was filed in the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida. The plaintiffs are represented by Leslie M. Kroeger, Theodore J. Leopold and Diana L. Martin of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC; and Vineet Bhatia, Steve Morrissey, Michael Brightman, Daniel Wilson of Susman Godfrey, L.L.P.

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