U.S. judge pulls out of lawsuit on Hanford radiation

SPOKANE — A federal judge who spent 13 years hearing a massive radiation lawsuit involving the U.S. nuclear-weapons program has reluctantly stepped down from the case after plaintiffs questioned his objectivity.

U.S. District Judge Alan McDonald bowed out Monday after critics said his ownership of orchard land near the Hanford nuclear reservation damaged his ability to decide if radioactive releases from the site were harmful to area residents.

"If a different robe and a fresh start gets this matter down the road to resolution, it might well be worth the wasted decade of time and study," McDonald, who sits in Yakima, said in a 10-page recusal order filed Monday.

The Hanford case will be reassigned next week.

Taxpayers have spent more than $60 million to defend Hanford contractors against claims of "downwinders," residents near Hanford who contend their health was damaged by radioactive releases from the plutonium-production site in the early years of the Cold War.

McDonald in his order said he had done nothing wrong by buying an orchard near the Hanford site in 1999 and certifying to a bank the land was free of radiation contamination.

Hanford is near Richland in south-central Washington and was created by the Manhattan Project to make plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The site for decades made plutonium for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Especially in the early years, radioactive emissions went up smokestacks and were pushed by winds into a wide area of Eastern Washington.

About 5,000 people who lived near Hanford contend in the lawsuit that their health was damaged by the emissions between 1944 and 1972. Most of the releases involved radioactive iodine-131, which has been linked to diseases of the thyroid, including cancer.

McDonald in 1998 dismissed 4,500 downwinders from the case, leaving a few hundred to pursue their claims against the contractors that ran Hanford's plutonium factories.

McDonald ruled the majority of the downwinders had failed to prove radiation doses from Hanford had more than doubled their risk of getting cancer.

Last November, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled McDonald, reinstated those plaintiffs and remanded the case to him for trial.

In October 1999, McDonald and his partners in Chiawana Orchards bought land in Ringold, Franklin County, across the Columbia River from Hanford.

In May 2001, McDonald and his partners applied to Northwest Farm Credit Services in Pasco for a $12 million line of credit, using the land as collateral and signing statements that the orchard was free of radiation contamination.

To make such a statement "requires a core conviction by Judge McDonald that no long-lasting contamination of the properties will ever be proved," Seattle attorney Tom Foulds wrote late last year in his motion to recuse.

"By definition, this is a prejudgment concerning one of the critical issues in the case."

Judicial conduct codes call for judges to recuse themselves from cases if they could reasonably be perceived by the public to be lacking in impartiality or if they have a direct financial interest in a case.