Energy Department pleased with decision

By Nicholas K. Geranios, Associated Press Writer
Copyright 1998 Associated Press
August 27, 1998

One of the largest lawsuits ever filed against the Hanford nuclear reservation has been whittled down to between 20 and 200 plaintiffs, a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Energy says.

That's how many people are estimated to remain after a federal judge dismissed the claims of nearly all the approximately 4,500 plaintiffs who sued five private companies that operated Hanford for the government.

"The Department of Energy is pleased that relatively few of the plaintiffs' claims may be viable," Marc Johnston, deputy general counsel for the agency in Washington, D.C., said in a telephone conference call on Wednesday.

The lawsuit was filed by thousands of Hanford "downwinders" who contended their health was damaged by radiation from the Hanford nuclear reservation. But U.S. District Judge Alan McDonald decided most of the claims were without merit.

"What we had here was a lot of claims where ... credible evidence did not exist," Johnston said in the agency's first comment on the case. "We all know there were in fact some off-site emissions."

While the exact effects of the 762-page ruling by McDonald, of Yakima, are not clear, Johnston said the best estimates are that between 20 and 200 of the plaintiffs will meet the strict standards the judge set in dismissing the other claims.

A leading Hanford watchdog group called McDonald's recent ruling "a gross miscarriage of justice."

"People died from deliberate Hanford radiation releases, as a matter of scientific certainty," said Gerald Pollet, director of Heart of America Northwest.

He called on the region's congressional delegation to seek money and medical care for the downwinders.

Hanford began making plutonium for nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan Project in World War II. In the early years of operations, many of the nuclear wastes were sent up smokestacks or dumped directly into the ground.

The lawsuit, one of the largest ever against DOE, was filed in 1990 after the federal government admitted for the first time that radiation releases at Hanford from 1945 to the early 1960s could have harmed people living downwind of the south-central Washington site.

Some 14,000 people are believed to be at risk because they lived in an area of Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon and north-central Idaho at the time.

Johnston confirmed that the government had already spent some $ 54 million on the case, and had never tried to settle with the downwinders. He said a possible settlement offer may be studied now that so few plaintiffs will remain.

"Perhaps everyone can sit down and think if further litigation is necessary," Johnston said.

The government is responsible for the legal bills of the contractors that operated Hanford during the Cold War.

McDonald ruled that scientific evidence of radiation injury was too complex for a jury to determine. His ruling will be appealed, said Seattle attorney Tom Foulds, who represents some of the plaintiffs.

The ruling allowed a handful of cases to proceed to trial, including those of some plaintiffs with thyroid cancer.

McDonald ruled the plaintiffs can continue seeking medical benefits and compensation if they can prove they were exposed to a 5-rad dose of Iodine 131 from infancy to age 4; a 10-rad dose from age 5 to 9; a 33-rad dose from 10 to 19; an 100 rads for those 20 and older.

Those are the doses estimated to double the lifetime risks of thyroid cancer. A rad is a common unit of measurement of radiation exposure. A modern mammogram causes less than half a rad of radiation.

In order to determine which plaintiffs can continue their lawsuit, each person involved in the lawsuit has to be analyzed to determine if they meet McDonald's criteria, Johnston said.

The contractors who were sued include General Electric, DuPont, Rockwell, United Nuclear and Atlantic Richfield.

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