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Burbank Pollution Dogs Lockheed Years Later

Courts: Aerospace firm still faces a slew of claims by former neighbors over alleged health problems.

October 05, 2000|JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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