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Appeals court refuses lawsuits against Apollo uranium plant

Mary Ann Thomas
| Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, 3:48 p.m.
A federal appeals court refused to reinstate lawsuits that claim Apollo area residents suffered from cancer caused by radiation from the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. The NUMEC plant, seen in this photo circa 1961, made nuclear batteries known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators. The plant, which was located just off of the Apollo Bridge, was razed decades later.
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A federal appeals court refused to reinstate lawsuits that claim Apollo area residents suffered from cancer caused by radiation from the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. The NUMEC plant, seen in this photo circa 1961, made nuclear batteries known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators. The plant, which was located just off of the Apollo Bridge, was razed decades later.

A federal appeals court refused to reinstate lawsuits alleging that exposure to radio­active emissions from a former nuclear fuels plant in Apollo caused cancer among residents.

The federal 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 90-page ruling released Wednesday, said it agrees with a lower court ruling that dismissed lawsuits filed on behalf of more than 70 people who claimed their cancers were caused by radioactive emissions from the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. plant.

The defendants are Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group and the Atlantic Richfield Co., which operated a uranium fuel-processing plant founded by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp., or NUMEC, in Apollo and a plutonium plant in Parks Township. The plants operated from about 1957 to the mid-1980s.

The individual lawsuits for the 70-plus area residents were filed by attorneys from Motley Rice's law firm in Providence, R.I., and a Pittsburgh law firm, Goldberg, Persky and White.

In their decision, the 3rd Circuit judges determined that the plaintiffs were missing critical elements for their case to go to trial:

• Although the plaintiffs had cancer and resided in or close to Apollo, there were other factors the court looked at, among them that some plaintiffs had extensive smoking histories and some had multiple cancer diagnoses over their lifetimes.

• “Even with state-of-the art data, it is impossible to determine with certainty that radiation is the cause of a given incidence of cancer,” the judges' ruling stated.

• The alleged excessive radio­active emissions sparked major arguments between plaintiffs and defendants. The plaintiffs cited emissions data from the plant's stacks many times over permissible levels. However, the defendants argued that regulatory agencies instead relied on readings from air monitors at the edge of the plant's roof and at the boundary of unrestricted areas.

• The judges ruled that the plaintiffs' experts failed to provide “evidence of exposure to inhaled uranium from the Apollo plant and an estimate of the dose they received which caused their cancers.”

This round of lawsuits, first filed in early 2010, has sustained some challenges. In 2014, a federal judge overturned a ruling, keeping the lawsuit alive by allowing primary expert testimony for the plaintiffs to stand.

This latest round of lawsuits cover residents whose illnesses didn't manifest until after the first civil action and other exceptions.

The companies always have maintained that their operations did not cause illness or damages.

Attorneys for the defendants and plaintiffs did not immediately return phone calls for comment late Wednesday afternoon.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4691, mthomas@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.

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