STURGEON, MO. -- "They had eight lawyers and we had two, but we licked them anyway." So begins Frances Kemner, an 81-year-old retired elementary school teacher who sits on the sofa of her living room describing the recent and happy results of Kemner v. Monsanto.

In a 700-day ultramarathon trial -- the longest in American history -- a jury that deliberated eight weeks ordered Monsanto, the St. Louis chemical conglomerate, to pay $16.2 million in punitive damages to Kemner and 64 other Sturgeon residents. In 1979 a railroad tank car ruptured in this central Missouri farming town of 800 citizens. It was a 19,000-gallon spill of a chemical used in wood preservatives and laced that eventful day with a type of dioxin known as the most poisonous chemical ever made.

Monsanto, which is appealing the verdict, was found to have failed to warn the Sturgeon residents about the presence of dioxin. It also failed to assess the cocksure tenacity of Frances Kemner. She calls herself a Harry Truman Democrat and says that the Independence hell-giver would be proud of her victory against the big boys in St. Louis.

In saying that it was eight Monsanto lawyers against Sturgeon's two, Kemner may have been low in her count. Rex Carr of East St. Louis, Ill., the main attorney for the citizens, estimates that Monsanto had many more than eight lawyers working on the case. Teams of three or four lawyers, he recalls, platooned during the trial, while an appellate team was "constantly filing petitions to try to stop the trial or throw out the case."

Like a muscle-bound wrestler, Monsanto was an imposing courtroom hulk that had more strength than agility. Carr turned his opponent's might to his clients' advantage: "Monsanto had no one person in the courtroom throughout the trial. I knew what witness X said at a point in time and could use the information in cross-examination or in addressing the jury, whereas one Monsanto trial team would not know what had gone on with earlier witnesses. It wasn't good trial practice not to have at least one lawyer there throughout."

Monsanto, which earned $463 million in profits on $6.8 billion in sales last year, declined to reveal the costs of its legal fight. Carr believes it was much more than the $9 million his clients offered to accept in a pretrial settlement. Monsanto, which markets NutraSweet, is somewhat bitter about its defeat. "We didn't injure anyone," a company spokesman said. "The plaintiffs asked for $135 million in both compensatory and punitive damages. They got $16.5 million in punitive and {63 of the 65} got $1 in compensatory. The dollar is enough to buy a bottle of aspirin." As for the appeal, the Monsanto man said, "We're confident we'll win."

The two not awarded $1 in compensatory damages were Frances Kemner and her son Bill, a farmer. The jury gave them $29,000 because their land was contaminated by the spill. The other contamination, which is where the punitive damages come in, was what Kemner calls Monsanto's deceit: "I saw the clean-up. They claimed to clean the tracks. We proved they never did. They lied to us from the word go." Bill Kemner, whose pasture lands and pond were poisoned, told reporters after the trial, "I feel we were lied to all the time."

As a result of the trial, Sturgeon joins Love Canal, N.Y., Times Beach, Mo., Globe, Ariz., and other towns that are now generic synonyms for poison pits. The specifics of contamination differ in each community, ranging from the spraying of dioxin-contaminated dust controllers in Times Beach to a leaking waste dump in Love Canal. The similarities were in the reactions of public or government officials who either denied that a problem existed or, if acknowledging that one did, believed it was the obligation of citizens to prove the contaminated environment was a health hazard.

Except for an occasional Frances Kemner, most citizens buckle. They raise doubts but then don't go on to raise hell. The effects of toxicity -- from cancer to birth defects -- are elusive. Without bodies falling in the streets, or lab rats gagging in their cages, proof is rarely hard enough to force corporate policies to change quickly.

And who forces the enforcers? In February 1986, a wire service reported that "Environmental Protection Agency tests at an Olin Corp. toxic-waste dump found the dangerous chemical dioxin at 630 times the level needed for federal action, officials said. An EPA spokesman said there is no immediate threat."

Surely not. Few threats, save the Bomb or a mugger's gun cocked to your temple, are "immediate." The gift of Frances Kemner to Sturgeon and the world is to insist that immediacy is irrelevant. Threat to human health no more needs an adjective than the citizens of Sturgeon needed 10 lawyers.