Apollo residents hope to take radiation claims before jury soon

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A raft of lawsuits by more than 75 Apollo area residents claiming they contracted cancer from a neighboring nuclear fuel factory's plumes of radioactive uranium dust continues to move toward jury trials, with a new deadline in the case this week.

On Wednesday, the alleged victims' lawyers will continue fighting to have jurors -- if and when the individual cases reach trial -- to hear the expert testimony of Steve Wing. Mr. Wing, a radiation safety officer with a doctorate in physics and radiological sciences, has previously told the courts that both the Apollo uranium-processing facility and its fellow Parks plutonium factory founded by Nuclear Materials and Equipment Co., and later owned by Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group and Atlantic Richfield Co., "regularly emitted large amounts of radioactive material into the environment through airborne stack emissions, unfiltered stack emissions, ventilation problems" and other handling mistakes and that "these releases regularly and consistently exceeded federal regulatory limits," according to court documents.

The plants operated from the late 1950s until 1986. Lawyers for the companies could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Wing is among a half-dozen scientists that lawyers for Babcock & Wilcox and Atlantic Richfield Co. had said should be kept from testifying because their arguments are not scientifically sound enough to be heard by a jury. A U.S. magistrate judge, Robert C. Mitchell, agreed with them last July, recommending that testimony from several of the Apollo residents' expert witnesses -- including Mr. Ring -- should be barred.

But in an unusual reversal of the pretrial court's ruling, on Feb. 27 Judge David Cercone of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania decided to let the plaintiffs' scientists testify after all. Lawyers for Babcock & Wilcox and Atlantic Richfield have objected to that decision, and lawyers for the Apollo residents will try to hold their ground in a response due Wednesday.

Regardless of all the legal wrangling, the cancer victims from Apollo have a straightforward case to make, said plaintiff lawyer Anne Kearse. The Apollo factory's radioactive "fingerprints" can be found in the soil 1.5 miles or more from the factory, including in areas where the plaintiffs lived and worked, she said.

"We know it came through the air and eventually people breathed the radionuclides, and its also in dirt samples around the plant," she said.

The Apollo plaintiffs have nearly two dozen kinds of cancer, including of the breast, brain, bladder, bone, cervix, colon, thyroid and lung, she said.

Quantifying exactly how much radioactive uranium dust the plant released on particular days is difficult because the plant's operators kept such poor records, she said.

Under federal public liability rules, plaintiffs must show the companies released radiation into the environment that exceeded federal limits in effect in 1979; that plaintiffs were exposed to this radiation, although not necessarily at illegal limits; that plaintiffs have injuries; and that radiation was the cause of those injuries, according to Judge Cercone's Feb. 27 ruling.

The Babcock & Wilcox factories' handling of enriched uranium and plutonium, which they manufactured to supply fuel to commercial nuclear power plants and to the Navy's nuclear submarines, among other products, is also the subject of a report released last week by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Office of Inspector General.

That report found that the factories had disposed of much more dangerous material, including weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, than previously believed, greatly complicating cleanup of the site. The waste is buried in 10 unlined trenches as little as 4 feet below the surface and as deep as 20 feet, in an area located over an abandoned mine shaft, according to corps officials.

The White House's National Security Council classified information about the site in June 2012, after crews excavating and removing waste from the trenches discovered "complex materials" such as uranium and plutonium.

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@gmail.com or 412-608-3618.

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