Court clears way for suit over uranium plant
By Brett Barrouquere
A federal appeals court has ruled that a 10-year-old lawsuit alleging that water leaks from a Western Kentucky uranium enrichment plant hurt property values can go forward.
The decision, issued Friday by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, reverses a decision by U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley, who dismissed the suit, saying there was no proof that enough contamination existed to pose a health hazard.
Judge Avern Cohn, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, said McKinley erred in dismissing the suit because the homeowners who brought the case have enough evidence to warrant a jury trial.
“The jury, properly instructed, must decide the outcome,” Cohn wrote.
The case stems from a suit filed by 16 homeowners who live near the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The homeowners sued in 1997, claiming about 10 billion gallons of polluted groundwater had damaged 82 pieces of property. They also claimed they lost use of their property and suffered losses of plants, crops, livestock and wildlife. Aside from land devaluation, the landowners allege the plant is a nuisance and they are seeking unspecified punitive damages.
Defense lawyers for former plant operators Union Carbide and Lockheed Martin denied the allegations and sought the dismissal.
The case was the only one alleging land devaluation among several lawsuits filed in recent years claiming contamination.
In the 1990s, the Department of Energy 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.
The case has bounced around the state and federal legal systems for a decade. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to clarify several aspects of state law in June.
The state’s high court ruled then that the landowners don’t have to prove they were harmed to sue past contractors for trespassing by allowing contaminants to spread beyond the plant.