Friday, February 17, 2006

Thursday, February 16, 2006 - 12:00 AM

U.S. facing $553.9 million payout for plutonium leaks

By Catherine Tsai
The Associated Press

DENVER — With a half-billion-dollar verdict hanging over its head, the Department of Energy was reviewing legal options Wednesday after a jury ruled that two DOE contractors allowed plutonium from the Rocky Flats weapons plant to contaminate nearby land.

A federal jury on Tuesday decided Dow Chemical and the former Rockwell International damaged land around the now-defunct plant through negligence that exposed thousands of property owners to plutonium and increased their risk of health problems.

Jurors awarded the plaintiffs $553.9 million in damages. The government already is facing an estimated $58 million in legal fees for the contractors.

State and federal laws likely will limit any verdict payout to $352 million, attorneys said, but taxpayers may have to foot the bill because the two companies' contracts called for the federal government to indemnify them.

Appeal planned

The companies were moving ahead with plans to appeal. Energy Department spokesman Mike Waldron said the agency and the contractors "are evaluating how best to proceed."

Dow Chemical operated Rocky Flats for the government from the 1950s until 1975; Rockwell ran it from 1975 until 1989, when it closed. The plant made plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads.

Dow Chemical spokesman Scot Wheeler said property values around Rocky Flats have continued to rise, and that several regulatory agencies have said the surrounding areas could be developed.

U.S. District Judge John Kane will review the verdict, said Louise Roselle, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs. The lawsuit was filed 16 years ago on behalf of 13,000 people.

Who pays

Generally, government contracts with companies that work for it require the Department of Energy to reimburse contractors that are ordered to pay penalties, Waldron said.

"The neighbors, the citizens of Colorado, have waited 16 years for the defense and the government to compensate them for the harm caused to them," Roselle said. "No amount of money will compensate them for what happened, but the government should stop spending money to fight the neighbors. They should spend money to settle and compensate neighbors."

The companies and their lawyers have cited several grounds to appeal, including jury instructions they say were too liberal. Defense attorney David Bernick has said the jury was allowed to award damages if it determined the companies were responsible for even one particle of plutonium on the plaintiffs' properties.

He has said the judge wrongly allowed jurors to consider certain testimony, including claims that the Energy Department was a conspirator.
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