U.S. taxpayers are spending $39 million in legal fees to fight Hanford downwinders, and that's just the tab for three years of maneuvering in a case that won't go to trial until late 1994 at the earliest.
Already, 11 legal firms - including six in Seattle - are billing the government up to $300 an hour for defending Hanford contractors that allowed the release of radiation and other toxic materials from the Eastern Washington bomb-making site. Downwinders - the residents living near the federal reservation - are seeking unspecified damages for the releases, which they say harmed their health and the environment.
"What we have here is taxpayer money going to fight its own people, which is the ultimate slap in the face," said Judith Jurji, president of the Hanford Downwinders Coalition.
Some of the firms charged as much as $3 million last year to the government. This year legal costs are expected to top $15 million.
Given the thousands of potential victims and the fact the case could set a precedent the government prefers not to deal with, the downwinders' suit is expected to be one of the most complex and longest legal battles in state history. A downwinders' lawsuit in Nevada went on for nine years before the U.S. Supreme Court threw it out.
"It's a vicious process where I feel we are being victimized again," said Lois Camp, co-chair of the recently formed Hanford Downwinder Health Concerns organization. "We're not a powerful enough group to demand we get these monies, so our only option is to let the attorneys fight it out."
Tom Foulds, a downwinder attorney in Seattle, was astounded to hear of this year's $15 million bill by his legal opponents. "That's far more than I expected they'd spend," he said. "If the plaintiffs had even one-tenth that money, $1.5 million, we'd be in nirvana."
Foulds acknowledged that fighting a seemingly endless supply of government lawyers with a bottomless source of money will be tough - but not impossible.
"We've got a lot of good facts on our side," he said. "I'd rather have the facts we've got than $15 million."
Jurji, who calls the legal struggle "definitely a David-vs.-Goliath situation," said more than 40 lawyers were present at one pretrial hearing.
The first downwinders' suit was filed by Foulds in August 1990, shortly after the federal government admitted in a preliminary study that large doses of radiation could have reached as many as 54,000 residents close to Hanford beginning in the mid-1940s, when plutonium for nuclear weapons first was produced there.
The government, however, has never admitted that the releases actually harmed people in the area. Two health studies are under way to assess what, if any, damage was done, but downwinders question the depth of the research and its funding by the government.
A federal judge in Yakima has consolidated seven downwinder cases, appointed a five-lawyer team to lead the case, and issued pretrial rulings narrowing some of the claims.
The legal doctrine of sovereign immunity precludes citizens from suing the U.S. government itself, but taxpayers are left to pay the bill for defending the Hanford contractors because a clause in their contracts makes the government responsible for nearly all their legal fees. The contractors being sued are Du Pont, UNC Nuclear Industries, Atlantic Richfield Hanford Co., General Electric, Rockwell and Westinghouse.
Despite the enormous legal costs and protracted process, both sides indicate they want the case to go to trial, and they're not talking settlement at this early stage.
"The institution is willing to spend quite a bit of money and have something settled in court," said Ken Morgan, Department of Energy spokesman in Richland. "When you have litigation you have an answer of guilty or not guilty. It would make my job a lot easier if there was a court decision."
Camp said she would rather settle and use the legal fees instead for independent scientific study and health care. But her opinion is not commonly shared by other downwinders, who wish to confront the government in court and try to gain compensation.
"There are very few options available to the downwinder community other than litigation," said Camp, of Lacrosse, Whitman County. "While the government seems to want to hold out and wait for people to die, we hope officials will have to assume responsibility and accountability for what they did to us."
Jurji said that by going to trial, Hanford's secrets would be uncovered: "It would bring everything out to the light of day in a public forum, and the government would have to answer some very tough questions." A settlement, she fears, would allow the four decades of silence to continue.
Hanford downwinders are worried they could be left hanging like residents near the Fernald nuclear-weapons plant in Ohio, where a $73 million settlement in 1989 provided nothing for individuals who claimed they were hurt by contamination. Instead, the Energy Department agreed to set up a fund for health monitoring and scientific studies.
Though the Hanford suit does not specify an amount for the personal-injury claims, Foulds said he expected damages to exceed $100 million. That means an expected 2,000 clients would get about $50,000 each, he said.
"That sounds like a lot," Foulds said, "but the real question is, would you accept $50,000 for a cancer in your body?" -----------------------------
LEGAL FEES: AUG. 1990 TO SEPT. 1991
CONTRACTOR FEES PAID SEATTLE LAW FIRM BY GOVERNMENT (IN ADDITION TO
IN-HOUSE COUNSEL) ------------------------------------------------------------- ARCHO $3,003,907.51 Gibson Dunn & Crutcher General Electric $2,938,370.88 Perkins Coie Rockwell $2,029,895.90 Helsell Fetterman Martin Du Pont $1,467,848.12 Williams Kastner & Gibbs UNC $721,504.83 Stoel Rives Boley Jones & Grey Westinghouse $657,146.58 Davis Wright Tremaine TOTAL: $10,818,673.82
(Du Pont built Hanford during the Manhattan Project and operated it until 1946; General Electric from 1946 to 1967; ARCHO, 1967-77; Rockwell, 1977-87, Westinghouse, 1987-present. UNC was a minor contractor in 1965-87.)