When Lockheed Martin Corp. closed its Burbank operations in the early 1990s, it left behind a plume of industrial pollution in underground water that remains at the center of contentious court battles today.
The contamination--one of the worst in the nation, stretching 13 square miles across the east San Fernando Valley--was detected 20 years ago, a toxic legacy of Lockheed's business of building fighter planes, top-secret reconnaissance jets and other aircraft from the 1940s through the Cold War.
But something akin to the Cold War is still being waged between Lockheed and scores of current and former Burbank residents who are fighting over the extent of the pollution, how many people--if any--were sickened by it and Lockheed's responsibility in cleaning up the mess.
Sources in the case say the company has entered secret talks to settle suits by scores of residents, although it has publicly vowed to fight all the lawsuits it is facing. Lockheed has never admitted liability, even while it pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into decontaminating the soil and ground water underneath its old factories.
Over the last six months, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Carl J. West has dismissed 140 plaintiffs with medical claims against Lockheed for lack of evidence. Hundreds of others have voluntarily dropped out--some at their lawyers' urging--amid concerns their cases would also be rejected.
If settlement talks fail, West will consider in November whether to throw out the rest of the cases. He is expected to rule on Lockheed's claim that the residents not included in the first settlement waited too long to sue the company.
But some residents say Lockheed is ducking its responsibility. Michael Signorelli, who has a federal suit against Lockheed, believes that Lockheed paid off some of his own family members living near him in a secret 1996 settlement with nearly 1,400 people. Lockheed paid $93 million to Burbank residents and former company workers in the mid- and early 1990s.
The company is challenging claims made later by Signorelli and others on grounds there is no evidence anyone was harmed.
Signorelli doesn't buy it.
"If these contaminants are not harmful," he said, "then why are we cleaning them up?"
Signorelli and others who lived in the shadow of Lockheed's factories say their lingering health concerns have clouded the company's once-stellar reputation in the community it helped build. From the time Lockheed opened for business in 1928, it was a vital part of Burbank, helping to build its economy, employing its residents and supporting its community events.
It also was polluting the environment. Lockheed concedes that in its more than 60 years of manufacturing aircraft in Burbank, dozens of underground storage tanks on its sprawling 300-acre property leaked solvents and other toxic chemicals into the ground water--helping turn much of the east San Fernando Valley into a federal Superfund cleanup site.
Since the late 1980s, Lockheed has paid $265 million to clean up underground drinking water supplies, and company officials say they could spend as much as $100 million more on cleanup over the next two decades. The company also has paid $60 million to residents and $33 million to workers in confidential out-of-court settlements.
Pollution Lawsuits Still Pending
The pollution plays a central role in three current lawsuits:
* In Los Angeles County Superior Court, West is presiding over a lawsuit filed four years ago by more than 2,400 people who live or once lived near the former Lockheed factories and who were left out of the earlier settlement. The case is down to about 200 plaintiffs and is awaiting a judge's ruling on whether they will ever go to trial. So far, Lockheed has won most of the major court victories.
* In U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, nine Burbank residents filed a class-action lawsuit against Lockheed in 1996, alleging the aerospace company was negligent in its release of toxins into the environment. Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer denied the request for class-action status, but they and about 40 others are litigating their individual claims.
* In Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Jose, insurers are suing Lockheed, saying they should not have to pay as much as $500 million to decontaminate the soil and ground water in Burbank because the pollution resulted from years of gradual chemical leaks and because a large portion of the cleanup costs were paid by the Department of Defense and others. The trial judge has ruled against Lockheed on key issues, but appeals are expected.
Lockheed admits releasing two chlorinated volatile organic compounds, perchloroethylene, or PCE, and trichloroethylene, or TCE, into the ground over five decades. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies TCE as a possible human carcinogen and PCE as a probable human carcinogen.
Lockheed began using TCE and PCE to degrease metal airplane parts in the early 1940s. The company used so much of the solvents that they were stored in more than 100 underground tanks, at least one of which could hold up to 15,000 gallons of the cleaning solvents.
Over the decades, the cleaning solvents gradually leaked into the soil, contaminating a ground-water basin that had supplied 20% of the drinking water in Burbank and 15% in Los Angeles.
But independent legal and scientific experts say it may be impossible for the residents to prove that Lockheed made them sick.
"You can almost never link a specific incident of disease to the exposure caused by the company," said Jody Freeman, who teaches toxic litigation at UCLA's law school. "There are a lot of possible explanations why people get sick."
Residents contend their illnesses resulted from breathing contaminated air and drinking tainted tap water in the years before the Superfund site cleanup began and later when Lockheed began razing its scattered manufacturing plants, allowing winds to blow dust from the contaminated soil into neighborhoods.
But Lockheed officials say the residents, if exposed at all, could not have gotten sick from the chemical releases because they were in low concentrations and for too short a time period.
"If I was ill or my child was ill, I'd be out trying to find out why," said Lockheed spokeswoman Gail E. Rymer. "I don't blame people for seeking out answers to questions like that. But I don't think it's fair to go after a company that has the money to pay claims, and make claims that can't be substantiated."
Brooke Ward, 41, dropped her suit but still blames Lockheed for a miscarriage and other reproductive health problems.
"I've had illnesses that I truly believe with all my heart were from Lockheed contamination," said Ward, who grew up on Pass Avenue with three sisters.
Ward's mother, Sheila Henderson, 64, and 43-year-old sister, Erin Baker, have Crohn's disease, and another sister, Lynnell Murray-Madrid, 44, has Hodgkin's disease, pulmonary fibrosis and a heart condition. They are all plaintiffs in the state case.
Signorelli, 47, said he suffers from headaches, bronchitis and swollen lymph nodes and has had five kidney stones removed. The self-employed contractor, who is a plaintiff in the federal case, said he bought his Security Street house 20 years ago and used to watch black plumes rise into the sky from Lockheed's Plant B-6.
He thought little of it--until learning that Lockheed had agreed to pay $60 million to 1,357 of his neighbors in the 1996 settlement.
The agreement infuriated many who were left out of the deal. Signorelli believes some of his own family members living nearby received settlements, but does not know for sure because silence was a condition of payment.
"Everyone trusted them," he said of Lockheed. "They built the fighter planes that protected us during the war. They are American heroes. Why should I not trust them? The question now is, 'Why should I trust them?' "
Toxics Detected Two Decades Ago
In 1980, state officials detected the first signs of toxic pollution in Burbank ground water. Six years later, the U.S. government declared much of the east San Fernando Valley area around Lockheed a Superfund site, putting it on a national priority list. Dozens of water wells operated by the cities of Burbank, Glendale and Los Angeles were shut down.
Worker studies show that inhaling either PCE or TCE harms liver and kidney function, and animal studies provide the link between those toxins and cancer, said Sophia Serda, an EPA toxicologist. But less is known about the specific health risks associated with drinking water containing those compounds.
The EPA is reassessing the risks of TCE, according to V. James Cogliano, who is leading the effort in Washington. But determining the health risks from drinking contaminated water, he said, is difficult because exposure levels differ depending on water use and other factors, and contamination levels may vary over time.
Unlike asbestos exposure, widely believed to cause mesothelioma, a specific and rare cancer of the chest lining, TCE and PCE are not closely linked to specific diseases that would prove conclusively that they were caused by exposure to those toxins.
"It is a very gray area," said Dr. Ashokkumar L. Jain, an expert in industrial chemical exposures and an associate professor at USC's Keck School of Medicine.
Lockheed's decision to settle with the first homeowners in 1996 represented part of its exit strategy, Rymer said.
The company had merged with Martin Marietta Corp. a year earlier and is now based in Bethesda, Md. It had already announced its plans to leave Burbank, cutting about 14,000 high-paying aerospace jobs from the local economy.
"We just wanted to get on with business and the science just wasn't there" to disprove the residents' claims against Lockheed, Rymer said.
When more residents sued Lockheed in 1996, after the secret settlement was disclosed, company officials changed their legal strategy to defend against the charges.
For its defense, Lockheed spent $5 million on a worker mortality study that shows no significant increase in cancer rates among Lockheed workers. Lockheed presented two other epidemiology studies showing that cancer rates are no higher in Burbank than in Los Angeles County overall.
But plaintiffs' lawyers say the results are skewed, pointing out that the worker study looked only at deaths from cancer, excluding workers who may have had cancer but died of other causes. They also dispute the two other studies, saying many of the people who once lived near the Lockheed factories moved away, making a study of cancer rates in Burbank versus the county meaningless.
Even so, Judge West relied on Lockheed's three studies to throw out the first 140 claims against the aerospace manufacturer, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove the company's toxic releases caused those plaintiffs' illnesses. The ruling is being appealed.
Meanwhile, the environmental cleanup continues. Lockheed and other smaller polluters are paying to run separate water treatment plants in Burbank and Glendale, though it is expected to take a decade or more to remove all the TCE and PCE from the ground water basin. The company is operating a system to remove the same toxins from soil under its former Plant B-1 on Victory Boulevard, which is slated to become a giant retail development.
"We're not out to hurt the folks here," Lockheed's Rymer said. "We want to be remembered as doing the right thing, and I think we have done that."
But until the water and soil are clean, some Burbank residents oppose any development on the polluted land--even though experts say it is safe for such use.
"Let's not forget," said resident Molly Hyman, "that it was Lockheed who had been polluting Burbank's water wells and soil for 70 years and then they abandoned us."
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Plume of Pollution
Lockheed Martin and other smaller polluters are paying to clean up this 13-square-mile contamination plume in the San Fernando Valley's ground-water basin. The area was declared a federal Superfund cleanup site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1986.