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Lockheed Offers to Settle Pollution Claims in Burbank

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Lockheed Martin Corp. made an about-face Friday, offering $5 million to about 300 Burbank residents instead of fighting them in court to settle claims that they got sick from toxic chemicals the aerospace giant released into the air, soil and ground water during decades of defense manufacturing.

The settlement offer, if accepted, could end four years of litigation in Superior Court between the residents and Lockheed. In making its offer, Lockheed is not admitting guilt.

The firm already has paid $93 million to settle other claims by thousands of residents and former workers who also say they were made ill. A separate lawsuit by other residents against Lockheed is pending in federal court and is unaffected by the settlement negotiations in state court.

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It is unknown how much money each resident would receive under the proposed settlement, but it would be significantly less than the tens of thousands of dollars that each plaintiff got in a 1996 settlement with Lockheed.

Residents’ attorney Thomas Foley said Friday the settlement would be allocated by lawyers for the plaintiffs using a formula that takes into account the types of illnesses people have suffered, how long they lived in Burbank, and how close they lived to Lockheed’s factories.

He also said the attorney fees--typically 40% of the settlement amount--and legal costs have not yet been calculated. Those costs would be paid from the settlement money.

Plaintiffs have until Oct. 16 to accept or reject the offer, and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carl J. West must approve the deal.

If the offer is rejected, the case is scheduled to go to trial next year.

The proposed settlement would cover about 200 plaintiffs whose claims are awaiting trial in state court plus 140 plaintiffs whose cases were dismissed earlier this year and are now on appeal.

Plaintiffs were advised by their attorneys not to comment about the settlement offer.

The offer comes as government regulators are investigating elevated levels of chromium 6 in the San Fernando Valley’s drinking water supplies.

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Lockheed has admitted using materials that contain chromium 6, a known carcinogen when inhaled, during its decades of manufacturing airplanes. Company officials say contaminated topsoil has been removed.

Lockheed spokeswoman Gail E. Rymer said Friday there is “absolutely nothing” linking the company’s settlement offer with recent headlines reporting elevated chromium 6 levels in some of the county’s drinking water.

“This all started well before chromium 6 became an issue,” she said, adding that the settlement talks began almost a year ago.

Foley said the negotiations did not get serious until late last month.

Chromium 6 is one of three primary toxins that the plaintiffs say caused them to get sick. On May 2, West ruled that there was insufficient scientific evidence presented in the first case to show that the toxins had actually caused the illnesses alleged by the plaintiffs.

With that ruling, Rymer said the company decided to settle because it would be cheaper than continuing to fight the cases in court.

Lockheed attorney Pierce O’Donnell, in a Sept. 29 letter to the plaintiffs’ counsel, said the company “views settlement merely as prudent business decision, most certainly not an acknowledgment of liability.”

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“In other words, the legal fees and expenses for Lockheed Martin to complete the litigation, including trial, are substantially greater than our monetary offer,” he wrote.

O’Donnell estimated that Lockheed has spent more than $1 million so far to defend against the state claims, and could expect to spend at least $2 million more in a trial.

Lockheed has admitted using toxins in the manufacturing process, but has maintained that residents were not exposed to toxins in levels sufficient to have caused their alleged illnesses.

The Superior Court and federal lawsuits were filed in 1996, after Lockheed secretly paid $60 million to 1,357 Burbank residents with similar legal claims.

At that time, Lockheed officials charged that residents left out of the earlier settlement had filed so-called copycat lawsuits in hopes of getting money for health claims they could not substantiate.

After the second round of suits were filed, O’Donnell told residents at a meeting in January 1997 that Lockheed intended to defend itself. “There will be a trial in full light of day for all to see and for all to form their own opinions,” he said.

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In court filings, Lockheed has argued the plaintiffs waited too long to file their suits.

The court, Foley said, could rule that plaintiffs who received a newspaper between 1986 and 1996 should have known Lockheed was contaminating the environment, and made their legal claims earlier.

Meanwhile, Lockheed’s Rymer said the settlement offer is an attempt to end years of ill will. “I hope we can get back on track and work with the community in addressing the continuing environmental cleanup,” she said.

Lockheed built aircraft, ranging from the World War II-era P-38 fighter to the F-117A Stealth fighter--in Burbank from 1928 until the early 1990s.

In 1986, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared much of the east San Fernando Valley around Lockheed a Superfund cleanup site, after finding two volatile organic compounds, perchloroethylene, or PCE, and trichloroethylene, or TCE, in the ground water.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

From Jet Fighters to Shopping Centers

Former Lockheed sites have been converted to airport parking lots and retail stores. Much of the land awaits redevelopment.

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Former Lockheed Sites Present Use 1. Plant C-1 Part of Facility profile: Production Burbank Airport Acres: 15 2. Plant B-6 (Skunk Works) Airport parking Facility profile: Designed terminal site and built the U-2 spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird, F-11A Stealth Fighter Acres: 129 3. Plant A-1 Commercial Facility profile: Sub-assembly and retail for the L-1011 commercial airliner. (Fry’s Electronics) Acres: 5 4. Plant B-1 Slated for Facility profile: Built the P-38 retail development Acres: 88

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Source: Lockheed Martin

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