Taxpayers have shelled out $43 million so far in legal costs for the massive Hanford downwinders’ case, a legacy of Cold War radiation releases.
About $35.8 million of the total has gone to lawyers defending five corporations who ran Hanford for the government from 1944 through 1986.
Meanwhile, a trial date in the 6-year-old case hasn’t been set and the legal bills continue to mount at a rate of several million dollars a year.
The U.S. Department of Energy released the updated legal tab last week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed in September 1994.
Thousands of people who lived downwind from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are suing in federal court, contending that radiation releases harmed their health.
The case is “unusually expensive,” said Marc Johnston, DOE’s deputy general counsel for litigation. “It is a large case with allegations that span 40 or 50 years.”
Cost controls DOE put in place in 1994 are lowering the annual legal bill from $7.5 million to $5.9 million.
The new rules curbed lawyers’ billings and slashed the number of firms involved from 12 to two, Johnston said.
That’s beside the point, said a leading Hanford activist.
“It seems to be a really sorry way to spend the taxpayers’ money,” said Lynne Stembridge of Spokane’s Hanford Education Action League.
The money being spent fighting the case is enough to set up medical monitoring and rudimentary health care for people with thyroid disease and other problems linked to radiation releases, she said.
“They are also bleeding money away from Hanford cleanup. It’s a double tragedy - nobody is being helped by this,” Stembridge said.
Lawyers representing the 4,000 downwinders say they’ve spent $3.5 million so far - 10 times less than the contractors’ law firms.
The defendants “get to spend tens of millions, while we scrape by and use frequent-flier coupons,” one downwinder attorney said.
Taxpayers get the bill for the contractors’ defense under a unique government arrangement to pay all legal costs of companies that agreed to make plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
That arrangement, called indemnification, includes defending the contractors against people who may have been harmed by radiation spewed into Eastern Washington.
“It’s an incredible injustice that we taxpayers have to pay for the defense of the very people who harmed us,” said Lois Camp of LaCrosse, Wash., one of the plaintiffs.
In addition to the $35.8 million for outside law firms, the U.S. Department of Energy has spent $7 million on the case, said Jim Bauer, an attorney in DOE’s general counsel’s office in Richland.
The money has been used to develop a computer database for the litigation and to search old buildings, file cabinets and computers for Hanford-related documents.
A Feb. 9-16 “standdown” at Hanford to search for documents has cost $2.39 million to date, Bauer said. Hanford workers dropped their cleanup work to search for Cold Warera documents in response to a federal court order.
U.S. District Judge Alan McDonald had lambasted DOE officials for being slow to provide documents for the case.
“Judge McDonald said DOE was to use extraordinary means to respond. We think we did that,” Bauer said.
By fall 1994, when The Spokesman-Review’s Wasteland series first documented the huge legal tab, costs had reached $29.6 million.
Now it’s $14 million higher - and there’s no trial date in sight.
In 1994, the money was flowing to 12 large law firms representing former Hanford contractors DuPont, Atlantic Richfield Hanford Co., Rockwell Hanford Co., United Nuclear, and Westinghouse Hanford Co.
Westinghouse has since been dropped from the case.
In a 1994 investigation, the General Accounting Office said the legal fees were out of control and called on DOE to provide better oversight.
The Energy Department allowed dozens of lawyers to charge up to $300 an hour, stay in posh hotels and eat in fancy restaurants on the taxpayer’s tab, the GAO said.
“It was a lawyer’s full employment program,” said one congressional staffer.
The Clinton administration moved to rein in the legal costs. In August 1994, DOE Chief Counsel Robert Nordhaus issued new guidelines for law firms aimed at trimming costs.
DOE named DuPont the lead contractor for the case, and DuPont recommended two law firms to continue handling the case, dropping 10 others.
The two firms are Kirkland & Ellis of Chicago and Davis, Wright Tremaine of Seattle and the Tri-Cities.
“It appears the controls are working, but we have to keep monitoring the situation to assure they continue,” Johnston said. The huge legal bill “speaks volumes” about the government’s efforts, HEAL’s Stembridge said.
“They are trying to avoid setting a precedent for damaging the health of people living around the bomb plants in this country,” said Stembridge.
“This is not just about Hanford. It’s also about Rocky Flats, the Nevada Test Site, and all the others.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A CASE HISTORY Nearly 4,000 people who lived near Hanford are suing the private contractors that ran the nuclear weapons plant from 1944 to 1986. The downwinders claim their health was ruined by secret radiation releases that spread across Eastern Washington and North Idaho. The first lawsuits were filed in 1990. No trial date has been set.