Owners of 6 properties claim their land is devalued because of high radiation levels.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
"I obviously have some work to do before I determine if we have trial or not," U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley told lawyers Monday after a 3-hour hearing.
Aside from ruling on defense motions to dismiss the case, he must decide whether to allow key radiation and real estate experts to testify on behalf of owners of 16 properties claiming their soil has radiation levels more than 1,000 times higher than normal. Attorneys for former plant contractors accused of poisoning the land say state and federal regulators have determined the trace amounts are too low to be a health concern.
McKinley did not indicate when he will rule in the case, set for a five- to six-week trial starting Jan. 12. The 16 properties — several of whose owners were in the courtroom — have been segregated for trial among 82 brought into the suit since it was filed in 1997. Aside from land devaluation, the complaint alleges the plant is a nuisance and seeks unspecified punitive damages.
Because of general groundwater contamination, the Department of Energy in the 1990s provided eight of the 16 properties with free municipal water, even though traces of contamination were found in wells of only four of the eight. Owners of eight properties claim to have title problems hurting their ability to sell their land.
The judge heard testimony from real estate appraisers Joe Sloan of Paducah and Tom Waldrop of Mayfield that plant-area land was devalued because of disclosures in an Aug. 8, 1999, story in The Washington Post. The story told of a whistleblower suit alleging former plant contractors defrauded the government by concealing plant contamination. The suit revealed that highly radioactive substances such as plutonium had entered the plant in uranium recycled from nuclear fuel.
Sloan said the land was devalued by 19.4 to 41.2 percent, based on comparable studies in other contaminated areas of the nation and market reaction to the "buzzword" radiation. There were no comparable sales here because of sellers' inclination not to disclose contamination to buyers, even though they are legally bound to do so, he said.
Robert Tait, representing defendants Union Carbide and Lockheed Martin, countered with a report by its expert, Paducah real estate appraiser George Sirk. Sirk found there has been no harm, and, in fact, the neighboring land has risen in value based on subsequent sales.
Sloan based his findings on a study by Dr. Berndt Franke, an internationally known radiation expert who evaluated about 4,000 Energy Department and regulatory soil samples for the radionuclide technetium-99 at and near the Paducah plant. Less radioactive but far more prevalent than plutonium, technetium also was in uranium recycled from nuclear fuel.
Landowner attorney Eddie Schmidt said there is more technetium in the plant environment than generated in all historical nuclear testing. Schmidt told McKinley that, according to Franke, property owners should be concerned because the amount of technetium found in plant tests was far above that normally found in fallout.
Tait argued that Franke did not test neighboring land himself but based his findings on computer modeling. Schmidt called the model, "if anything ... conservatively low."