Erwin businessman sues Nuclear Fuels over contamination

By Kathy Helms-Hughes


   The owner of Impact Plastics Inc. and Preston Tool and Mold Inc. of Erwin has filed suit against Nuclear Fuel Services Inc., a Maryland corporation doing business in Erwin, over potential cancer-causing contaminants found in groundwater underneath his property.
   Gerald M. O'Connor Jr. has hired attorney James Gentry Jr. of Chattanooga -- subject of the movie, "A Civil Action," starring John Travolta -- and Kingsport Attorney Gorman Waddell to represent him.
   The complaint was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Greeneville with copies also sent to the attorney general of the United States and to the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
   The complaint alleges that contamination from NFS's processes of recycling irradiated uranium in spent nuclear fuel has led to substantial contamination of the NFS property, causing radionuclides and hazardous chemicals to impact groundwater beneath O'Connor's property, located at 1070 Industrial Drive, adjacent to NFS.
   The complaint states that groundwater beneath NFS is contaminated with volatile organic compounds such as chloroform, 12 dichloroethylene (1,2 DCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethylene (TCE), vinyl chloride, and tributyl phosphate (TBP). Groundwater also is contaminated with radionuclides including: depleted uranium, technetium-99, 129-Iodine, uranium 233/234, uranium 235/236, and uranium-238; plutonium 238 and plutonium-239/240; and thorium 228, 230, and 232.
   Depleted uranium is an isotope of uranium-236 and is not naturally occurring in the environment. According to a nuclear expert, depleted uranium is an indicator of a type of nuclear fuel enrichment process or the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.
   Technetium-99 is a fission product and is produced during the process of recycling irradiated uranium in spent nuclear fuel.
   The complaint alleges that 129-Iodine also is unique to NFS's facility and its manufacturing operation.
   The suit contends that NFS, which is situated in a 100-year floodplain, "has committed a public and private nuisance by discharging the contaminants into the waters of the State of Tennessee," and that NFS has committed negligence by discharging the hazardous substances. ... "Specifically, [NFS] has knowingly discharged the contaminants into the groundwater which has migrated into the plaintiff's property and [possibly] into the Nolichucky River."
   Attorneys Gentry and Waddell allege that O'Connor's property would be of substantially more value than it is now if the contaminants were not there, and that the property has become "stigmatized to the extent that there has been a substantial diminution of the value of the property."
   The presence of the contaminants "will probably prompt the plaintiffs to move their operations away from all of the dangers created by the hazardous substances in the groundwater," the attorneys state. They also claim that moving the operations, along with diminution of the property value, creates a "substantial amount of damages" to O'Connor and his companies.
   It also is alleged that O'Connor "demanded" that NFS take immediate steps to stop the flow of contaminants from its property in an expeditious manner to prevent devaluation in the fair market value of O'Connor's property.
   NFS recently completed a six-month pilot study of a new "molasses" technology which it is hoped will stop the spread of contamination of the volatile organic compounds. NFS plans to begin a full-scale project this month with the drilling of 17 to 20 injection wells.
   But even if NFS abates offsite contaminants, according to the complaint, O'Connor's property will continue to suffer as a result of having been impacted by hazardous substances in the past, as well as the threat of future possible impact from NFS.
   The complaint alleges under CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, that O'Connor "is an innocent purchaser of the property" and was only recently advised of the hazardous substances which have traveled to his property. As a result, he has been forced to expend money to determine the extent of contamination.
   O'Connor is seeking recovery of all necessary costs incurred as a result, and a declaratory judgment as to liability on any future costs arising from the contamination.
   According to NFS sampling results from monitoring wells located along the property boundary line, radioactive plutonium was detected in groundwater samples as early as September 1993.
   In November 2001, plutonium, thorium and uranium were observed in monitoring wells located on Impact Plastics' property, and technetium-99 was detected in two of nine offsite wells. All were within levels considered safe by the EPA.