Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 November 1999 05:00 Wednesday, 20 January 2010 11:41
Exxon Mobil Corp., the largest U.S. energy company, hid the risk that workers cleaning used oil- drilling pipe were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, a group of workers claims in a trial that started today.
The workers, 19 former employees of Intracoastal Tubular Services, or ITCO, claim they were exposed to radioactive radium in the residue that built up in the pipes and are now afraid they may get cancer. The trial began with opening statements in state court in Gretna, Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans.
The workers claim Exxon knew as early as 1981 that the residue could contain radioactive material and warned no one for years. Exxon delayed disclosure to prevent federal authorities from reclassifying radioactive water it pumped from Mississippi wells as hazardous waste, the workers claim.
Exxon knew about this hazard, Timothy J. Falcon, a lawyer for the workers, said in his opening statement to the jury. They didn t tell.
The claims are among thousands pending against Exxon and other oil companies over allegations that they put workers and residents near pipe-cleaning operations at risk from radiation- connected diseases, primarily cancer. The plaintiffs in this trial, who worked at the ITCO site outside New Orleans, are seeking medical monitoring and punitive damages.
The longer they worked there, the more radioactive material they were exposed to, Falcon told the 12 jurors and four alternates.
No Radium Injuries
Exxon denies any delays or concealment and contends the radiation levels at the Harvey, Louisiana, site weren t high enough to cause illness. The workers medical records show that none of them has injuries related to radium, the company said.
Exxon did not deceive, Exxon did not cheat, lie or hide anything, Louis C. Woolf, a lawyer for the company, said in his opening statement. Exxon pipes did not cause the plaintiffs to suffer any injury whatsoever.
Woolf said Exxon didn t know about the possibility of radioactive contamination in its pipes going to ITCO until 1986. At that point, it took steps to protect workers that included notifying state regulators, establishing guidelines for handling pipes and sending letters to 4,000 contractors, he said.
The owners of the Harvey property won a $1 billion punitive jury verdict against Exxon in 2001 over claims of radioactive contamination from the pipe-cleaning operation. The punitive judgment was reduced to $112 million and paid, with interest, after Exxon s appeals failed.
The pipes involved in the lawsuit were used in offshore oil exploration and sent by Exxon to ITCO for cleaning. In March 1987, Exxon representatives informed ITCO that the pipe may contain small amounts of naturally occurring radioactive material, Woolf told jurors.
ITCO, which is also a defendant in the trial, went out of business in 1992,Thomas Balhoff, the company s lawyer, told jurors today. He said ITCO didn t know about any possible radiation problem before 1987. After Exxon informed the company of the issue, ITCO stopped cleaning radioactive pipes and monitored the exposure of its workers, he said.
The exposure increased the risk of cancer, and Exxon should pay damages for this risk and for fear of the disease, according to the workers.
None of the plaintiffs at trial has cancer. Exxon settled with three plaintiffs with cancer who were scheduled to go to trial with this group.
In the first trial over the site, for environmental property damage, a Louisiana appeals court upheld the 2001 jury s finding that Exxon was responsible for contamination, calling the company s conduct inexcusable.
Exxon was aware of the radioactive elements in the pipe and failed to inform Intercoastal, the court said in a 61-page decision.
From June 1986 to March 1987, Exxon officials intentionally withheld information, the court said. Exxon knew the scale posed a direct danger to the physical health of those workers.
Exxon s payment of the punitive judgment set off an advertising blitz by plaintiffs lawyers seeking workers and neighbors as clients, the company said in court papers Oct. 29 in another of the radiation cases.
A veritable cottage industry has emerged, with more than 44 suits by thousands of plaintiffs claiming injuries from exposure to radiation to pipe-cleaning, the company said.
A trial against Shell Oil on these allegations is set for trial in May. Exxon and Intracoastal Tubular are the only defendants in the current trial.
The Gretna trial is expected to take up to six weeks. It is being held in a large traffic and misdemeanor courtroom in the town to accommodate the dozens of lawyers and observers attending the trial.
The case is Lester v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 630-402, District Court, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana (Gretna).
Courtesy : Bloom Berg
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