Published on Thursday, February 16, 2006 by the New York Times
Jury Urges Millions in Penalties for Nuclear Contamination
by Katie Kelley
DENVER - A federal jury has determined that cold war military contractors building nuclear bomb components near Denver contaminated lands owned by 12,000 neighbors with plutonium waste, and has recommended $554 million in payments and penalties.
Lawyers for the companies, Dow Chemical and Rockwell International, said they would appeal the decision, which was read late Tuesday.
People living near the site said the decision, after a 16-year legal battle over the environmental consequences of the plant, Rocky Flats, had vindicated their claims.
"We are thrilled wiinto this," said Merilyn Cook, one of the seven plaintiffs who filed the case on behalf of 12,000 property owners. The class-actioth the verdict, and we appreciate the time and the diligence that the jury put n suit argued that land in the area had been devalued through years of contamination while the surrounding Denver area boomed.
The plaintiffs argued that Rockwell and Dow Chemical, which had operated through contracts from the United States Department of Energy, had negligently mishandled plutonium and other radioactive material inside the plant, polluting nearby property. The companies said they were not liable because the work did not depress values of the neighboring properties.
The suit, filed in Federal District Court in Denver in 1990, began trial in early October 2005. The jury deliberated for two weeks.
The decision called for punitive damages of $110.8 million against Dow Chemical and $89.4 million against Rockwell, and $177 million against each company in actual damages. Lawyers for both sides said the final award was likely to be smaller because of limits set by state and federal laws.
Operations at Rocky Flats began in 1953, and through the years more than 60,000 nuclear weapon parts were produced there. The plant also became a symbol, for many people in Colorado, of the cold war's environmental costs. Its neighbors said contaminated soil blew from the site onto surrounding lands.
Production at Rocky Flats ended in 1989, and cleanup began that year after the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the site, fearing that radioactive materials were being illegally discharged.
State Representative Wes McKinley, a Democrat, who was a foreman on the resulting grand jury investigation of Rockwell in the early 90's, said he and other jurors had found that the company had committed environmental crimes. Rockwell pleaded guilty to at least 10 counts of environmental crimes in 1992 and paid a fine of more than $18 million.
Mr. McKinley said he was pleased by the decision. "It shows that you can go up against a huge corporation," he said. "It shows that maybe we can start holding our government accountable."
David M. Bernick, a lawyer for the defendants, said "fundamental problems with the verdict" occurred in part because of instructions given to the jury. He said, "The jury reached contradictory conclusions on who should be held responsible and for what."
"We don't think that this was at all a fitting end to a very long and important legal process," Mr. Bernick said. "And we're going to appeal."
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