A team of East Coast lawyers is suing a Hanford contractor and the researchers who bombarded the testicles of Oregon state prisoners with X-rays during human experiments in the 1960s.
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Eugene.
The lead plaintiff is 53-year-old Harold Bibeau of Troutdale, Ore., a former prisoner featured in a 1994 Spokesman-Review series on the controversial experiments.
Similar experiments also were conducted at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, and additional lawsuits on behalf of Washington state prisoners are expected.
Some of the attorneys representing the Oregon inmates are from a Philadelphia firm known for taking on high-profile nuclear cases, including the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and secret radiation releases at Hanford and Rocky Flats.
“We’ve put together a coalition of law firms working on government abuses of power, including illegal and immoral nuclear experiments on human guinea pigs,” said attorney Stanley Siegel of Berger and Montague.
The firm already represents some of the Eastern Washington downwinders who sued Hanford contractors in 1990 for secretly exposing them to dangerous radiation during the Cold War.
The Oregon suit seeks at least $50 million for emotional and physical damage to the 67 prisoners, their families and their children.
It also seeks a medical monitoring fund and punitive damages against the private researchers and former government officials who carried out the experiments.
“We are asking for a couple of hundred million dollars” in punitive damages, Siegel said. The usual statute of limitations doesn’t apply because the prisoners weren’t aware of the risks until a few years ago.
A spokesman for Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories, a Hanford contractor named in the lawsuit, said Thursday the company hadn’t been served with a copy.
“We can’t comment because we haven’t seen it,” said Jerry Holloway.
The researchers being sued couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
Bibeau hopes the lawsuit will force government officials to track inmates who’ve left prison to determine whether they have developed cancer or other health problems from the experiments.
“Their own doctors were calling for this, and they never did it,” said Bibeau, a housing contractor who was imprisoned from 1963 to 1969 for killing a man who tried to molest him.
A total of 131 inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem and the Washington State Penitentiary participated in the experiments.
Dr. Carl Heller, a Seattle doctor whose Pacific Research Foundation later became the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, led the Oregon experiments. Heller died in 1982.
Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen of Seattle, a retired University of Washington fertility expert, conducted the Washington state tests.
Both sets of experiments were paid for by the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to today’s U.S. Department of Energy.
The AEC was interested in the radiation dose that would make men temporarily sterile in space flight, plutonium factories, nuclear power plants and on the atomic battlefield.
In 1993, Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary launched a high-profile critique of the government’s clandestine radiation tests, including the prisoner experiments.
A White House advisory committee spent 1-1/2 years investigating the experiments.
In its report in October, the committee said the prison X-ray experiments were unethical because the prisoners were a captive population and were not fully informed of the risks. The committee also said the cancer risk from the doses is very low.
In Oregon, officials set up a system to track the prisoners to monitor their health, but it was never carried out due to lack of money.
In Washington, there has been no followup. The names of most of the 64 participants remain secret because Paulsen, citing patient confidentiality, won’t divulge them.
Battelle’s Pacific Northwest Laboratory at Hanford was named in the lawsuit for providing some technical advice on calibrating the X-ray equipment.
Other targets of the suit are former AEC officials who signed the contracts and supervised the experiments; Heller’s Pacific Northwest Research Foundation in Seattle; Mavis Rowley, Heller’s assistant; and two Oregon doctors, Fernando Leon and Daniel DiIaconi.
Leon, of Portland, did biopsies of the prisoners’ testes, and DiIaconi was the head prison doctor. He is retired in Salem.
Leon, 64, said he operated on prisoners when he started into his private surgery practice, but could remember few details of Heller’s project.
“What happened in 1963 is not in my mind at all. News of this suit is shocking,” Leon said.
Efforts to reach the other individuals named in the lawsuit were unsuccessful on Thursday.
The legal team representing the Oregon inmates has recently filed two other human experiment lawsuits. One is on behalf of retarded children fed radioactive cereal at a Massachusetts boarding school. The other is for indigent patients who were injected with plutonium without their knowledge in a University of Rochester experiment.
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