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Mega-lawsuit claims nuke contamination in Armstrong

Mary Ann Thomas
| Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 11:01 p.m.

The nearly 100 plaintiffs alleging death, cancer and other illnesses from radioactive emissions from two defunct Armstrong County nuclear fuels plants are awaiting a trial date for what is likely to be a second set of a multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit.

The defendants, Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group and Atlantic Richfield, operated a uranium fuel-processing plant founded by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) in Apollo and a plutonium plant in Parks Township from 1957 to 1986.

The plaintiff's attorney Jonathan Orent, an attorney with in Motley Rice's Rhode Island office, said that the trial in federal court in Pittsburgh could be underway by the end of the year. The attorneys are working with Pittsburgh law firm, Goldberg, Persky and White.

"We represent a lot of folks who were seriously injured through the exposure of materials released by these facilities," Orent said. "We're eager for them to have their day in court so they can move on with their lives."

Attorneys for the defendants, Paul Hastings' office in San Francisco, did not return phone calls for this article.

But the companies have filed responses in court denying that their facilities caused any illnesses to nearby residents.

Motley Rice recently filed expert studies on the former nuclear sites.

The law firm is trying to consolidate the individual claims, which were first filed in 2010, under one judge, according to Orent.

Motley Rice recently submitted a series of studies alleging dangerous, cancer-causing emissions from the plants.

Radiation and heath experts focused on the potential health damage caused by "accidental" plant releases that were allegedly thousands of times higher than regulatory limits at that time.

But the expert reports also acknowledged that the amount of historical data is incomplete.

In recent court filings, plaintiffs provided many tragic stories of living in the Apollo and Parks area in the shadow of the nuclear sites and being diagnosed with cancer.

Plaintiffs include the late Kenneth Baustert of Apollo who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2008, according to a report written by James Melius, an occupational physician and epidemiologist.

Baustert's cancer spread to his brain and he died in 2010.

He grew up in Apollo and worked as a machinist at a company next door to the Apollo NUMEC plant. He went on to help raze the Apollo and Parks nuclear fuel processing plants.

The lawsuit claims that as a child, Baustert had been exposed to substantial amount of enriched radioactive uranium from the Apollo plant.

According to the lawsuit: "While living as a child in Apollo near the Apollo nuclear facility, Mr. Baustert would have been exposed to substantial amounts of enriched radioactive uranium and other radioactive materials emitted from the Apollo facility during this period of significant nuclear production at the facility.

"He would have inhaled these emissions and also inadvertently ingested them from contact with the contaminated air emissions and dust from the facility."

Unlike similar lawsuits previously filed on behalf of area residents by Fred Baron, the late Texas lawyer who represented victims of industrial pollution and served as finance chairman of John Edwards' presidential campaign, the current crop of suits do not seek damages for property damages.

The plaintiffs are residents with cancers and illnesses that were not included in the first lawsuit.

Some of the cases are for residents who were recently diagnosed with cancer.

"It takes cancer years and decades to form in body after exposure to ionizing radiation," Orent said.

Following-up a lawsuit

This is the second set of lawsuits filed in the last two decades on behalf of Armstrong County residents that allege that airborne radioactive emissions caused death and illness.

As before, the defendants are the owners of the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) plants in Apollo and Leechburg: Babcock & Wilcox and Atlantic Richfield.

A batch of earlier lawsuits were settled in 2008 and 2009 for more than $80 million to about 365 claimants for death, illness and property damage resulting from the operations of those plants.

The companies have always maintained that their operations did not cause the illnesses or the property damage.

That first series of lawsuits was pioneered by Fred Baron, a trial lawyer who won billions of dollars for clients in asbestos cases and a good friend of former Sen. John Edwards. Baron's mega-lawsuit was only one of a few cases with a huge group of townspeople claiming injury from radiation that actually went to court and settle.

The legal action took 14 years and is considered one of the longest running cases in the U.S. District Court of Western Pennsylvania.

More than 40 percent of the claimants -- and Baron who as a kid worked in a factory sweeping up mounds of asbestos -- died while waiting for the case to conclude.

The lawsuits filed by Baron had cut-off dates for new plaintiffs as the case moved closer to trial and some people with potential claims were not included.

After the Baron suits ended, Leechburg environmental activist Patty Ameno, who brought in Baron, brought in a new national law firm, Motley Rice, to pick up the additional claims.

Headquartered near Charleston, S.C., Motley Rice represents victims of contamination, occupational diseases, and other hazards. Recently, the firm helped negotiate a preliminary settlement likely in the billions of dollars for victims of the Gulf Oil spill.

Motley Rice started filing the new wave of individual suits in 2010.

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