After 15 years of waiting for their day in court, six “downwinders” who claim their health was ruined by invisible radiation clouds from Hanford’s plutonium plants met the jury that will decide their case.
“This is a red-letter day. Finally, we have the first day of trial,” U.S. District Court Judge William Fremming Nielsen said at a final pretrial hearing early Monday before the six-man, six-woman jury was chosen. The Hanford trial is expected to last four to five weeks.
The jurors include a Moses Lake farm consultant, a nurse-practitioner from the Okanagan Highlands who treats some patients for thyroid disease and a retired Spokane County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher. The oldest juror is an 83-year old retired social worker who lives near Newport on the Pend Oreille River.
Lawyers for General Electric and DuPont, the defendant Hanford contractors, had complained recently to Nielsen about negative pre-trial newspaper publicity and had sought a change of venue. Nielsen denied their motion.
In voir dire, the prospective jurors were asked whether they could be unbiased even though they’d read media accounts of the downwinders’ case. A few said they knew almost nothing about Hanford’s plutonium factories or the long-running litigation.
In opening arguments, attorneys for the six “bellwether” plaintiffs and other lawyers defending Hanford’s early contractors from the radiation damage claims laid out their roadmaps for the high-stakes trial.
“This is the first trial where the story of Hanford’s effects will finally be shared,” said Richard Eymann of Spokane, lead trial attorney for the plaintiffs. One by one, he introduced the bellwethers, whose claims are being heard first. There are over 2,200 plaintiffs in the larger case.
The plaintiffs include three with thyroid cancer: Gloria Wise, born in Pasco in 1944; Steve Stanton, also born in 1944, who drank milk as a child from a local Walla Walla dairy; and Shannon Rhodes, born to a Colfax farm family in 1941.
Three others have autoimmune thyroid diseases, including hypothyroidism: Katherine Goldbloom, whose family farmed near Kennewick; Shirley Carlisle, born in Richland in 1947; and Wanda Buckner, born in Pasco in 1945.
Eymann took a highly personal approach in his opening statement, showing pictures of Goldbloom as a child marching in Richland’s Atomic Frontier Days parade and perched on a load of hay, and Shannon Rhodes with a large bottle of milk. He said Rhodes’ medical bills for the cancer that grew in her thyroid and spread to her lung have exceeded $500,000.
The children were primarily exposed to iodine 131 after the Hanford plant emissions fell on grass. The grass was eaten by cows, which transferred the radiation to the milk they drank. The public wasn’t told about the radiation hazards until the mid-1980s, after activist groups and The Spokesman-Review filed Freedom of Information Act requests for Hanford’s early emission history.
“The radiation from Hanford became a different type of nuclear bomb. It became a nuclear bomb inside the thyroid glands of these children,” Eymann said.
In his opening statement, Chicago attorney Kevin Van Wart told the jury that scientific experts for the defense will show that Hanford’s iodine-131 releases were not sufficient to have caused harm.
“Thyroid cancers predate Hanford. They occurred all over the world,” Van Wart said.
Hanford’s iodine-131 doses were low-level and were spread out over time, in contrast to other atomic exposures such as the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Ukraine or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the radiation doses were massive and delivered all at once, he said.
There are 23,000 thyroid cancers a year in the United States and thyroid cancer rates around Hanford are not excessive, Van Wart said.
“It’s obviously disturbing news to get (thyroid) cancer, but the good news is its high cure rate. We have only good wishes for the plaintiffs in terms of their health,” he said. As for the female plaintiffs with hypothyroidism, “there’s no evidence that, without Hanford, these plaintiffs would not have their thyroid conditions,” Van Wart added.
The downwinders’ lawyers will present their expert witnesses first. Then it will be the defense’s turn.
The jurors will not have to determine whether the Hanford contractors were negligent in releasing the Hanford radiation, Nielsen said.
“This lawsuit doesn’t involve issues of negligence, only whether iodine 131 emissions from Hanford caused the plaintiffs’ injuries,” Nielsen told the jury.