Just a few days after an Orlando Weekly article reported surprising new claims in a seven-year lawsuit over ground-water contamination `Poison Pens? Feb. 25`, the Orlando Sentinel reached a secret agreement with its adversaries in that suit.
"The agreement was signed March 1," says Colleen Dykes, a Sentinel spokeswoman. "A mediation was held Dec. 22, and that's when the agreement was reached in principle."
The terms of the lawsuit settlement are sealed, but the Sentinel published a story on Thursday, April 8, saying it had bought the 4.5-acre block bordered by Colonial Drive, Orange Avenue, Cheney Place and the railroad tracks. The newspaper also bought an area of land east of Orange Avenue behind several Colonial Drive stores. The former owners, a group of investors operating under the name Vanguard South, sued the Sentinel in 1992, claiming that TCE, a chemical solvent the newspaper had dumped into storm-water drains from the 1960s through 1980s, had contaminated their land and lowered its value.
The purchase price was reported as "just short of $3 million," which works out to about $15 per square foot. Dykes said the land purchase was completed on March 29.
State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and federal EPA investigators found the Sentinel responsible for the contamination, and in 1994 the Sentinel agreed to pay 60 percent of the cleanup cost, while still denying any wrongdoing. But the plaintiffs wanted to be paid for their loss.
Last fall, after several years of investigation, Vanguard's lawyers filed a claim for punitive damages. The newspaper had hidden evidence and lied, the plaintiffs claimed. They offered depositions from several former Sentinel employees and from officials of the company that sold TCE to the Sentinel saying that the newspaper had used the chemical for years after it said it stopped, and that Sentinel employees had dumped some of it down the drain.
And there was one other new claim: Earl Kenon, a press wipe at the paper in the 1970s, said under oath that he had driven truckloads of TCE to both the county dump and a private dump in Altamonte Springs. Some of those barrels were dumped with the trash on the ground, Kenon said.
Judge Joseph Baker denied the claim for punitive damages, but the two sides were already negotiating a secret settlement.
Despite the sealed settlement, the Sentinel faces a renewed investigations over the Kenon deposition. DEP officials were preparing letters to the Sentinel and to Orange County dump officials this week.