Last May I reported on the plight of people in the western Pennsylvania town of Apollo. As a result of gross corporate negligence, many residents have suffered serious illnesses from the uranium fuel plants located in and close to the village. The last owner of the facilities was the global conglomerate, Babcock & Wilcox. Left behind when the plants closed in 1986 “were contaminated land and water and sick and dead residents.” As a result of lawsuits filed in the 1990s, Babcock & Wilcox and ARCO (the previous owner) were forced to pay $80 million to compensate victims for cancers and loss of property value. Now scores of new lawsuits have been filed against the two corporations, which must contend with a damning report by an expert witness to the federal court hearing the cases that states that the companies knew about “worst-in-the-nation releases of radioactive materials that spanned decades” but didn’t do much to protect the health of the residents.
Corporations never take such lawsuits lying down. They fight back, and they have ample resources and hired guns to do their dirty work. A classic ploy is to smear those who accuse them, much like a defense attorney will suggest that a woman who is raped was asking for it. Patricia Ameno, who grew up in Apollo and who has suffered cancer and brain tumors, has been an activist for twenty-five years in the battle to secure justice for those done grievous harm by the two companies. She has become a leading protagonist in the current lawsuits, a public face for those who have suffered. A David, if you will, battling against Goliath. This must be a frightening position to be in, and the companies know this. So they use their power, their image of invincibility, to put such a person in her place and show the litigants that they might face the same.
Babcock & Wilcox has gone after Patricia Ameno with full force, attacking her credibility and accusing her of dishonesty. It has filed a discovery motion in federal court to force Ms. Ameno to provide it with information. The company claims that she “destroyed evidence, made false allegations about nuclear contamination at its sites and recently invoked the Fifth Amendment twice in a deposition for a lawsuit.” It says that she was paid $70 for each litigant, that she destroyed the invoices showing that she received the money, that at public meetings she disingenuously recruited people with cancer to file lawsuits, convincing these hapless souls that their cancers were due to actions by Babcock &Wilcox when there was no evidence that this was so.
Ms. Ameno’s lawyer and the firm prosecuting the case for the plaintiffs deny the corporation’s claims, and Ms. Ameno says that she is being harassed. Veteran environmental lawyer and Duquesne University law professor, Steven Baicker-McKee, was taken aback by the attacks, stating that “This is certainly evidence of very adversarial and hostile relations between the defendants and Ms. Ameno.” Some excerpts from the federal court motion certainly sound hostile:
“Defendants have sought to learn what Patricia Ameno told plaintiffs to convince them that their cancers were caused by defendants and to commit themselves to time-consuming lawsuits that undoubtedly have disrupted their personal lives.”
“In order to drum up claims against defendants, Ms. Ameno held a series of public meetings in which she apparently told prospective Plaintiffs that Defendants caused their cancers, even though no epidemiological evidence supports this claim. Ms. Ameno enlisted dozens of Plaintiffs, even though they had no scientific or medical basis for suing defendants.”
“According to a Jan. 4, 2010 letter from Motley Rice [the firm representing plaintiffs] to Ameno, she was hired by the firm as an independent contractor to ‘aid in the investigation and prosecution of lawsuits’ related to the Armstrong County former nuclear fuels plants.”
Attack, attack; deny, deny; delay, delay. This is what corporations do when their perfidy is made public. It’s often a winning strategy. And even when it is not, the worst that happens to them is that they lose some money. Their victims, on the other hand, stay maimed, sick, and dead. The attacks on Patricia Ameno are just the opening salvo of what will be a long, drawn-out affair. The last set of lawsuits dragged on for fourteen years before Babcock & Wilcox settled. It never admitted guilt. And just as with the last suits, more plaintiffs will die before the dust settles.