Downriver residents may face choice of settling health damage claims over emissions, giving up right to sue U.S. Steel. 

ECORSE — Mary Fantin has lived in the same River Rouge home her entire life, enduring the pollution from the Great Lakes Works steel mill that sends metallic dust into swimming pools and orange plumes of smoke in the air.

The price for a lifetime of worry: up to $300 apiece for the 74-year-old Fantin and 7,000 other homeowners and renters in River Rouge and Ecorse, their potential settlement in a class-action lawsuit that would end years of litigation involving Michigan’s largest steel mill.

Fantin and others recently received notice of the deal. Soon, they could face a choice: Agree to the settlement, promise never to sue the company and take the money or refuse out of principle and hope something better comes along.

“We’ve all been living with that grime and grit and sparkly things. The settlement is nothing,” Fantin said. “At least they are offering some sort of consolation for being in the business they are in and causing the problems they are causing.”

U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn is expected to rule Thursday on whether to approve a $4.45 million settlement between residents and Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel Corp. It would likely end the four-year suit between neighbors and pay lawyers who brought the class-action 30 percent of the deal, nearly $1.5 million.

The deal would bring an end to legal woes that have mounted for U.S. Steel since May 2003, when it bought the plant from a previous company that refused to invest in environmental controls as it slid toward bankruptcy.

“The state has fined them, they are repairing the equipment and what’s left to be done is to compensate the people,” said Jason Thompson, co-class counsel for the case. “This brings an end to that chapter.”

Problems with the steel mill led to a series of complaints from residents that attracted interest from regulators, leading to the suit in November 2004. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued more than 50 letters of violation concerning air quality when the plant was owned by now-defunct National Steel.

In 2004, seven more were issued to the new owners, claiming pollution controls were not installed on a series of furnaces and documenting emissions of “100 percent opacity with thick brownish color.”

In 2005, the state and U.S. Steel entered into a consent agreement requiring the company to install pollution controls, increase maintenance checks and avoid more problems. The company was fined $950,000 and ordered to invest $200,000 to restore a stretch of shore to its natural state.

U.S. Steel knew about some of the problems, but was surprised by the full extent of them after the sale went through, said company spokesman John Armstrong. He said the company made $60 million in upgrades to air emissions controls.

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