means_carole2.jpg
J. Craig Sweat
Carole Means.
Somewhere along the middle of this century, cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation may be complete. That will be more

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Hanford Downwinders' Suit 'Baseless,' Says One of the Attorneys Who Billed U.S. $50 Million

means_carole2.jpg
J. Craig Sweat
Carole Means.
Somewhere along the middle of this century, cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation may be complete. That will be more than 60 years after the last plutonium was produced at Hanford, some of it originally used to arm the Fat Man atomic bomb dropped in 1945 on Japan, where a modern nuclear crisis prevails today. Maybe by 2050, the Hanford Downwinders' lawsuit might be complete, too. But it's doubtful. Few plaintiffs have been compensated in the past 20 years of legal wrangling over whether 1950s Hanford plutonium releases into the atmosphere caused local residents' cancers and other ailments, and lawyers defending the government don't seem anxious to end it all.

They've so far billed taxpayers more than $50 million fighting the claims of people such as Carole Means, a radioactive 71-year-old eastern Washingtonian. And they're awfully freaking righteous about it. "We're not going to throw taxpayer money at baseless claims," lead counsel Kevin Van Wart, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, indignantly tells The National Law Journal.

Thanks to taxpayer-paid attorneys such as him, the case is mired in motions and competing expert studies, the Journal says, and chances of any money going to the surviving 1,500 plaintiffs are dicey.

Part of the problem is the case's unwieldy size and high stakes. But blame for the costs and delays also falls on the lawyers and judges themselves, who over the years -- a review of hundreds of pages of court records shows -- have made errors in strategy and judgment, staking out positions that leave little room for compromise.

The Downwinders' lawyers, who are handling the case on contingency, spent nearly $10 million on litigation expenses, not counting thousands of hours of as-yet unpaid work. "At this point," says the Journal, "they can't afford anything less than a massive payout from the government if they hope to break even."

They're up against a government defense strategy that seems based in part on dragging out the case long enough for plaintiffs to die off, making litigation even more difficult--despite the Price-Anderson Act, which mandates that government "provide for full and prompt compensation of all valid claims" from nuclear incidents.

"I've resigned myself to the fact that this is never going to be resolved in my lifetime," says Carole Means, suffering from fatigue syndrome and thyroid disease. "It just grinds on year after year after year. I have three children, and I hope it results in something for them."

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