Home » Lockheed Resolves Toxic Claims

Lockheed Resolves Toxic Claims

Residents near Burbank B-1 plan to receive $60-million

August 4, 1996

By BETH BARRETT, LEE CONDON AND CHIP JACOBS
Daily News Staff Writers

Lockheed Martin Corp. has agreed to a more than $60 million settlement with 1,300 Burbank residents who claimed their health and property values were damaged by decades of aircraft manufacturing at the company’s B-1 plant.

The confidential deal is novel because it disposed of the residents’ claims in a private mediation process, not a class-action lawsuit.

Lockheed has not admitted liability in the settlement with residents, which includes 80 of the plant’s neighbors who had cancer deaths or serious illnesses in their families, sources close to the negotiations said.

The highest award was $300,000 to a family who had a member die of cancer, sources said. The rest of the residents received settlements that varied from about $10,000, with many getting cash to make up for a drop in their property values, the sources said.

In addition to the lump cash sums that were slated to be mailed out beginning Aug. 1, the company has agreed to independent medical monitoring for residents who may have been exposed to a certain level of contaminants for at least five years.

“Lockheed was trying to buy peace and to do the right thing,” a source close to Lockheed said.

The company confirmed the settlement was related to “historical operations.” Its insurers will pay the bill, sources said.

A spokeswoman said the Burbank plant, which has been dismantled, never was a health danger to surrounding neighborhoods.

“Lockheed has always maintained that its properties in Burbank posed no risk to the community, now or in the time that we were in operation, and we stand by that now,” said Susan Pierce, a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman.

Lockheed moved its aircraft manufacturing operations out of Burbank in 1990, after six decades of building aircraft at the 103-acre site, to Marietta, Ga., and Palmdale. The Burbank plant was dismantled and Lockheed has embarked on a large environmental cleanup of toxic solvents – among the chemicals used at the plant – now in the soil and groundwater.

The company was ordered to clean up the toxics as part of a federal Superfund site. The northern Burbank area also was identified as the San Fernando Valley’s hottest toxic spot in 1989 by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, with Lockheed identified among major contributors.

It was not required to notify residents of their toxic exposures, however, because it ceased operations, said Raman Patel, a senior engineer with the AQMD.

Burbank residents worried about the cleanup hired attorneys in the fall of 1994 and a canvass of the community was begun to identify cancer deaths and other illnesses in the area.

A number of people described strong smells or dust that had come from the Lockheed plant. Others complained that their homes were worth less as a result of the plant’s pollution and cleanup proposal.

Faced with dozens of cancers near the plant, a history of air emissions of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, and toxic solvents in the soil and groundwater, Lockheed had a crisis to diffuse when the neighborhoods made their claims, according to sources near the settlement.

During mediations, Lockheed insisted there was no link between the chemicals they used and any of the cancers in the neighborhood.

Still, Lockheed feared a jury might award high damages if the residents filed a lawsuit, even if no chemical causation was established and despite California case law that says parties cannot recover on “cancer fears” alone, a source said.

In addition, Lockheed has been eager to sell the property, which is located just east of the Golden State Freeway, and bounded by Buena Vista Street, Empire Avenue and Victory Place. In May, the company confirmed that Disney is among the companies it is trying to negotiate a sale with.

The company has been working to make the property attractive to buyers, and did not want its cleanup efforts scuttled by litigation, sources said. The company is planning to construct a complex system of pipes, wells and filters to clean up contaminated soil to comply with a 1987 order from the California Regional Water Quality Board.

As such, Lockheed did not object when the number of residents involved in what was described as a “de facto” class-action suit grew from about 275 people to 1,300, sources said.

To try to appease residents concerned about possible health problems in the future, the company agreed to the medical monitoring program, which is similar to an umbrella insurance policy – and which will be operated by an entity independent of Lockheed.

It will allow residents to collect damages if they can show they were exposed to certain levels of toxic contamination associated with their illnesses, sources said.

The payments could reach $1 million in a death case under such circumstances, a source said.

Residents who talked to the Daily News on condition of anonymity said that while there is lingering anger at the company, the settlement has brought a measure of financial and emotional relief.

Several said they have found some security in knowing their health will continue to be evaluated and that medical bills will be paid, even for children unborn at the time of exposure.

A woman who has cancer, and who is to receive more than $100,000, said she’s still mad Lockheed didn’t tell the community about the chemicals they were using at the plant.

“I’m very angry because of my medical problems,” she said. “Lockheed should have told people.”

Still she is happy “something was done,” and that there was a financial settlement.

Another woman, who said she’ll get more than $10,000 for “personal injury,” said residents were initially frightened and that Lockheed officials reassured them they both understood their fears and wanted to work with the community.

“It was a little scary. I didn’t want to die of cancer,” she said. “We wanted to know if we could eat the fruit we were growing. But I’m glad to get the settlement.”

Residents were asked by their attorneys to fill out a survey used to establish the cancer and illness profile in the area.

“They said in order for there to be some compensation we had to fill out these thick questionnaires,” a woman said. “They asked if we smoked, what relatives died, our diet, drug use, residence and detailed medical, employment and personal information, what computers we used. They even asked about our sexual history.”

The woman said it took her about a month to fill out the questionnaire.

Other factors included in the settlement formula included distance from the plant, number of family members and length of residency, a source said.

One man who is to get more than $50,000 said dust from the plant was a recurring problem, and that over the years Lockheed declined to say what was in the dust or to take measures – beyond hosing it down with a greenish-colored substance – to stop it.

One source described Lockheed dismantling one building with workers protected by “space suits,” sending particles flying into the air without telling neighbors whether there was any risk.

A primary carcinogen driving the settlement was hexavalent chromium – a highly potent chemical used at Lockheed. Even a small amount drives up cancer risks downwind because of its “very high potency,” said Ben Shaw, senior manager for the AQMD’s air toxics team.

A health risk assessment of the B-1 site for 1989 concluded that, “emissions of hexavalent chromium contribute 86 percent to the total cancer risk,” which was estimated at 180 per million additional cancers among residents receiving a maximum exposure over a lifetime. Cadmium and cadmium compounds drove the rest of the cancer risk.

The assessment required under the Air Toxics Hot Spots Information and Assessment Act of 1987 said the 2.28 pounds of hexavalent chromium released in 1989 was among “28 air toxics” emitted from eight sources at the B-1 plant, “six of which are paint spray booths.”

Most of the carcinogens came from Lockheed’s paint booths, the AQMD’s Patel said.

The chromium compound, which is created as a byproduct during chrome plating, stainless-steel manufacturing and paint production has been linked to “lung cancer from inhalation of particles,” said Dr. Natalia Freeman, an assistant professor at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Piscataway, N.J., whose research specialty is chromium.

Freeman said there is slim evidence to suggest hexavalent chromium causes cancer through ingestion, such as when it is consumed in drinking water, though it is a metal that migrates through soil.

Earlier this year, state tests of monitoring wells near the B-1 site showed slightly elevated hexavalent chromium levels, according to Alex Carlos, associate engineering geologist for the regional board.

The medical monitoring program also includes exposure tables for trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, both solvents used to clean manufactured parts before assembly, sources said.

The toxicology on those volatile organic compounds, commonly referred to as TCEs and PCEs, is less clear, Freeman said. Neither are listed as “primary level carcinogens,” but high levels of TCE have been linked to elevated cancers in animal tests.

Groundwater monitoring wells near the B-1 site show toxic solvent concentrations far in excess of the state action level, or the level at which some mitigation is required. Tests earlier this year showed contaminants levels of up to 4,200 parts per billion for TCE and 3,100 parts per billion for PCE. The action level is 5 parts per billion for both toxic solvents, Carlos said.

Lockheed is expected to pay the bulk of the $300 million that the Superfund groundwater cleanup in the east San Fernando Valley is anticipated to cost. Federal and state officials identified the company as the major source of the pollution during a lengthy investigation that also identified more than 50 smaller responsible parties.

The state investigation to determine additional responsible parties is still under way.

Many municipal drinking water wells in Burbank, Glendale and the city of Los Angeles were closed in 1979 after traces of toxic solvents significantly above the state action level were detected in groundwater supplies.

The city of Los Angeles dug new wells in uncontaminated areas and continues to rely on the underground water supply for up to 15 percent of its water needs.

Many of the claims against Lockheed alleged property devaluation. As the result of controversy over a plan two years ago to clean up toxic vapors at the site – originally proposed to pump up to 40 pounds of TCEs and PCEs into the air each day – a number of residents complained they couldn’t sell their homes, or would take a large loss.

As a result, residents were notified by the air quality district of the proposal – which has since been modified – because of an increased cancer risk estimated at a maximum of 3.03 people per million for a lifetime of exposure, said Bill Milner, AQMD air quality engineer.

Homeowners rebelled in part because the Burbank Board of Realtors advised them they would have to disclose the Lockheed contamination and cleanup to potential buyers.

Lockheed now has agreed to clean up the TCE and PCE toxic vapors using a more advanced and more expensive technology that will result in far fewer emissions than previously proposed.

The permits, approved by the city of Burbank and the South Coast Air Quality Management Board, allow a maximum of 9.8 pounds of emissions per day – a volume on the order of what a dry cleaner or gas station emits, regulators said.

Residents said they’re hopeful property values will rise as the cleanup progresses, particularly if the land is sold. The toxic vapors at the site of the new tower are to be removed within eight and a half years, according to the terms of the permit.

The settlement included a confidentiality clause that said a breach would subject the party to a penalty of half the award amount.

“I don’t want to hide any information, but I have 1,300 people betting on it,” said Tarzana attorney David B. Casselman, with Wasserman, Comden and Casselman, who was among attorneys representing the residents.

Lockheed officials declined to comment on the penalty clause.

But others in the community said they are upset that a group of people secretly negotiated with Lockheed and were compensated for damages they also allege.

Ralph Garner, who lives near the the site, said he heard about the settlement from talking with neighbors but is upset because he’s not part of the deal.

Garner said that if the legal proceedings had been handled as a class-action suit, everyone in the neighborhood would have benefited.

“It seems unreasonable that one person is getting $30,000 and 99 other people are getting nothing,” Garner said. “Why is one resident entitled to damages, but the other isn’t? Why is it that such a select few people are getting so much money?”

Garner said the city of Burbank should have taken the lead and taken Lockheed to court to secure damages for residents.

Burbank City Manager Robert “Bud” Ovrom said he didn’t know about the deal and was disappointed that Lockheed had not disclosed it.

“I think Lockheed would be better served if they would put all their cards on the table and tell everybody what’s going on,” Ovrom said.

Casselman dismissed those complaints, saying there was plenty of opportunity for community members to join the action earlier.

He said that after Lockheed disclosed its cleanup plans in 1994, there were broad efforts to involve affected residents.

An Oct. 5, 1994, meeting at the Burbank Airport Hilton attracted about 400 people to hear Lockheed officials, and federal, state and local regulators discuss the plans for the site.

According to published reports at the time, at later meetings documents were available from Casselman’s law firm for people to sign indicating their interest in litigation.

Advertisements and announcements followed in local papers, asking interested parties to contact Casselman’s office for more information.

Residents responded in droves, worried that contaminants not trapped by the elaborate vapor extraction system – a network of filters, pipes and wells – could lead to cancer.

Instead of filing a lawsuit, however, the lawyers and their clients quickly entered into confidential negotiations with the company, sources said.

Neighborhood activists who had protested the vapor recovery system suddenly “shut up,” said Carolyn Berlin, a member of the Burbank Planning Board, who said she was not aware of Lockheed’s negotiations with the residents. The system was approved by the Burbank City Council and the AQMD earlier this year.

“It was a 180-degree change,” Berlin said. “People stopped talking and coming to public meetings. It was total utter silence.”

As a planning board member, Berlin, a one-time community activist herself, said she would have liked to hear public comment when she was considering the vapor extraction plan, which was approved by the city in February.

“It’s pretty sad when people walk away from their rights,” Berlin said. “I’ve never seen a situation where people lost their right to speak just for the honor of negotiating.”

The B-1 site consisted of a cluster of buildings and tool sheds used by Lockheed to manufacture military aircraft such as the P-38 World War II fighter and the commercial L-1011 jetliner, company and state officials said.

Lockheed was once the biggest employer in Burbank, but about 12,000 employees were transferred to plants in Palmdale and Marietta, Ga., in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

There are fewer than 100 Lockheed Martin employees working in Burbank, but none of their jobs is related to aircraft manufacturing.

Lockheed also is trying to sell a 140-acre parcel adjacent to the B-1 site to the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority.

copyright Daily News of Los Angeles