Patricia Nonnon isn’t celebrating this victory.
A mother who spent 22 years in a legal fight with the city over claims the toxic Pelham Bay Landfill killed her daughter Kerri, Nonnon’s simply satisfied to see a final chapter written in this tragedy.
“There’s closure with the city,” said Nonnon. “But it doesn’t make me feel better.”
City lawyers, citing a “complicated scientific case,” decided to settle with Nonnon and the families of eleven others for $12 million, a month before an appellate court judge was to hear their consolidated case.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that dump caused my child to have leukemia,” said Nonnon, 58, admiring a photo collage of Kerri, a soft-face child who loved horses, writing, playing with her Little Orphan Annie doll and the color purple.
Her most cherished photo of Kerri hangs by the mantel where she places flowers beside it. On Kerri’s birthday, the Nonnon family goes to Our Lady of The Assumption for mass.
“I don’t think I can ever mention her name without crying,” said Nonnon, teary-eyed. “She’s not a child you would easily forget.”
Kerri died in 1989 at the age of 10 from acute lymphoid leukemia, first diagnosed at the age of 4. Nonnon blames Kerri’s death on the old Pelham Bay Landfill, a mountainous city-owned site used as an illegal dumping ground by major carting firms and corporations who paid off city sanitation workers.
It was in the 1980s when Kerri and others played and lived just blocks from the 81-acre site meant only for household trash. But investigators found roughly a million gallons of toxic waste was pumped into the dump over the 70s before closing in 1979. Traces of cancer-causing benzene, chlorbenzene, ethelbenzine, xylene, cyanide, lead, arsenic, toluene and leachate festered in the dump, later seeping into the waters of Eastchester Bay, where children swam.
“She was exposed to many, many chemicals and didn’t even know it,” said Nonnon, who often noticed a yellow haze emanating from the site.
Two other neighborhood children would die from childhood cancer. Other children developed it, but survived. Nonnon began to sense a pattern beyond coincidence—all the kids had lived by the wasteland.
Leading the Fight
With help from then Assemblyman John Dearie, Nonnon pressured city agencies to take a look at the wasteland.
Even as she joined civic groups, sat in meetings and created a hot line for other potential victims, Nonnon’s determination was fueled by Kerri’s courage.
“The only thing that kept me going was her strength,” said Nonnon. “She was so strong, she never complained. So knowing her I had to finish this no matter what.”
Nonnon, the families of the two children, and nine other families of leukemia survivors eventually sued the city in 1991, arguing the dump’s contaminants were responsible for causing their children’s cancer.
The case lumbered along the system for 20 years after that. Much of the delays lied in the aggressive approach from both sides. The case was appealed twice to the Appellate Division and once to the state Court of the Appeals.
The plaintiff’s toxic tort attorneys, Mitchel Ashley and Jeff Korek, were ready to introduce an expert epidemiologist and toxiclogy proof showing the cancer incidence rate for kids living 1.5 miles near the dump was four times greater than those living further away.
“We thought we can make out a persuasive case,” said Korek.
Results took years, but enough awareness was spread for the federal government to declare the landfill as a federal Superfund site, eventually capping it.
In a statement, the city’s Law Department stood by its claim that “it managed the landfill lawfully and in accordance to industry practices.”
Nonnon, upon hearing the statement, was enraged.
“’Managed the landfill lawfully?’” she asks. “If that’s lawfully, then maybe that’s the way the city does things lawfully – illegally and sneakily.”
David Cruz can be reach via e-mail at DCruz@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 742-3383