FAIRFIELD, Wash. — It all began for wheat farmer Ralph Hein with a finger gliding down his neck one cold morning in 1952. The finger, his doctor's, came upon a lump just below the Adam's apple. The lump was a malignant tumor on his thyroid.
Later, Hein's wife, Dolores, and three of their four daughters developed thyroid problems. Then neighbors -- all farming families in this rolling grass country between Spokane and the Columbia River -- began to fall ill, and many died.
Emma Crabtree was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she and her husband, Harley, died of Hodgkin's disease. Their son Gordon survived bladder cancer. James Hahner died of pancreatic cancer; two of his children died of brain tumors. Mona Zehm also fell victim to a brain tumor. Down the road, Ed Brewer succumbed to pancreatic cancer, and his son David developed leukemia and died at 13.
The Heins counted 15 cases of cancer in their rural neighborhood.
"It seems important for you to realize this is every single house within this square-mile area," said Dolores Hein in a court deposition.
Nobody knew what to make of the slow devastation until 1986, the year that the Hanford nuclear reservation, 100 miles southwest of here, was forced to reveal some of its secrets.
Today, the Heins are among 2,300 plaintiffs who say their illnesses were caused by radioactive clouds that blew out of Hanford's smokestacks and blanketed much of eastern Washington over several decades. The plaintiffs are suing the contractors that ran Hanford in the 1940s and 1950s as part of the government effort to build up the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal.
After nearly 15 years of delays, the first trial involving Hanford "downwinders" got underway in Spokane last month. A jury in U.S. District Court is to begin deliberations today to decide whether the plaintiffs were "more likely than not" harmed by the plant's discharges.
If the plaintiffs win, jurors would determine damage awards, which both sides say could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. Damages would be paid by the U.S. government, which indemnified the contractors. The government is also paying for the contractors' defense, a legal bill that has already exceeded $60 million.
The trial focuses on several bellwether cases, a method used in toxic tort litigation that involves large numbers of plaintiffs. Six people with thyroid illnesses were chosen as representative cases in the Hanford lawsuit (the Heins were not chosen as bellwethers). The verdict would become a standard that lawyers could use to settle the other cases.
Hanford released a host of chemicals, but the focus of the Spokane trial has been on one radioactive substance, iodine-131, which was carried by winds to cover 75,000 square miles of eastern Washington, parts of Oregon, Idaho, Montana and southwestern Canada.
People breathed it and ate fruits and vegetables tainted with it. The most exposure probably came from milk produced by cows that grazed on contaminated grass. Once ingested, iodine-131 tends to concentrate in the thyroid, causing cells to malfunction or grow abnormally.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the front lower part of the neck with a lobe the size of a teaspoon on each side of the windpipe. It affects bodily functions such as growth and development, energy level and metabolism.
The contractors, in this case two Fortune 500 corporations, DuPont Co. and General Electric Co., say there's no proof that substances released by Hanford caused thyroid problems in the downwind area. Their lawyers rely heavily on a 13-year, $19.5-million federal study that concluded in 2002 that "no associations between Hanford's iodine-131 releases and thyroid disease were observed."
"There's no scientific basis for these claims. None," said Kevin Van Wart, the lead defense lawyer. "The downwinder groups are treating this whole thing so emotionally. Their whole case is orchestrated emotion. They've convinced themselves they are victims, and the lawyers are taking advantage of it."
Van Wart said the case would have settled years ago had there been fewer claims. The majority of the claims are "junk" and largely "lawyer-driven," he said. "This is a population that has been badly misled. It's big business for lawyers. Big business and big dollars."
Lois Camp, 63, a downwinder who believes Hanford is responsible for her lifelong thyroid and heart problems, nonetheless opposes the lawsuit, characterizing it as a "horrendous grab for money." Rather than pursue monetary compensation, Camp said, downwinders should push to have medical clinics built to monitor the health of all people in the affected area.
Scientists say that as many as 14,000 people could have suffered health effects from Hanford releases, and that the number of people exposed through land, water or air may be as high as 2 million.