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Lockheed to Settle the Final Claims Over Toxins

Los Angeles

April 17, 2002|JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lockheed Martin Corp. has agreed to pay $1.25 million to settle all outstanding claims by residents who contend that they were sickened by decades of chemical contamination at the company's top-secret Burbank plant known as the Skunk Works, officials announced Tuesday.

The settlement ends a contentious six-year legal battle with Burbank homeowners over lingering toxins at the 300-acre site where some of the military's best-known aircraft, including the F-117A stealth fighter, were designed, tested and built.

Since 1996, Lockheed has paid its former neighbors $66 million in three legal actions over toxic contamination of their properties. This was the only remaining case.

Residents allege that they suffer from life-threatening diseases, such as leukemia, because they were exposed to the same toxic solvents that have contaminated the aquifer under Lockheed's land. It was declared a federal Superfund cleanup site in 1986.

The lawsuits focused on the dumping of perchloroethylene, or PCE, and trichloroethylene, or TCE, from the old Lockheed plant into the air, soil and ground water near their homes.

Lockheed denied anyone had been harmed as a result of their actions.

"We felt that settling for a nominal amount was an appropriate business decision," company spokeswoman Gail E. Rymer said.

Thousands of Burbank residents, including those in the most recent settlement, sued Lockheed in 1996 after learning the company had paid $60 million in secret settlements to 1,357 residents.

Lockheed also paid $5 million to more than 300 plaintiffs in a separate lawsuit in December.

Attorney Steven N. Williams, who represented the plaintiffs in the pending federal case, declined to say how the settlement money would be distributed.

Williams credited his clients for challenging Lockheed's environmental practices in the six decades the giant defense contractor built airplanes in Burbank.

"When regular people take on a corporation with the financial and political resources and power of Lockheed, it's a difficult fight," Williams said. "We put everything into this fight."

Most of the 40 federal claims against Lockheed were thrown out of court because the statute of limitations had expired. A jury trial had begun in late January on three remaining personal-injury claims and one wrongful-death allegation. But after two weeks the trial was halted when U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer broke her hip.

At that time, the parties were urged to settle the case.

A second trial had been scheduled for a plaintiff who complained of property damage caused by Lockheed's alleged negligent handling of toxins.

Plaintiffs who reached settlements have agreed not to appeal the court's rulings or seek further damages from Lockheed. Besides civil lawsuits, Lockheed has paid more than $265 million since the late 1980s to clean up underground drinking-water supplies, and company officials said they could spend as much as $100 million more in the next two decades.

Lockheed moved its operations out of Burbank in the early 1990s after its merger with Martin Marietta. The company is now based in Bethesda, Md.

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