Appeals Court Clears Way for Suit Over Property Values Near Ky. Plant

November 5, 2007

A lawsuit alleging that water leaks from a western Kentucky uranium enrichment plant devalued property values can go forward after a federal appeals court ruled that there were facts in dispute in the case.

The decision, issued Nov. 2 by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, reverses a decision by U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley, who dismissed the 10-year-old suit saying there wasn’t enough proof that enough contamination existed to pose a health hazard.

Judge Avern Cohn, writing for an unanimous three-judge panel, said McKinley erred in dismissing the suit because the 16 homeowners who brought the case have enough evidence that they were hurt by contamination 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, which is about 10 miles west of Paducah in western Kentucky. The homeowners sued in 1997, claiming that about 10 billion gallons of polluted groundwater had damaged 82 pieces of property. They also claimed they lost use of their property and suffered loss to 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 by the uranium enrichment plant.

The Department of Energy in the 1990s 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 because of general groundwater contamination.

The case has bounced around the state and federal legal systems for a decade. The 6th Circuit asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to clarify several aspects of Kentucky state law in June.

The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled then that the landowners don’t have to prove they were actually harmed to sue past contractors for trespassing by allowing contaminants to spread beyond the plant. The high court also held that land devaluation by intentional trespassing is a recognized measure of damages once actual injury is determined. There is injury if groundwater is contaminated and it can’t be consumed.

Cohn said that interpretation of the law gives the landowners an opening to go to trial in an attempt to prove their case. Cohn wrote that the federal appeals court takes no position on how much the plaintiffs may seek or be awarded in damages.

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