After nearly 25 years, a lawsuit charging that radioactive discharges from Brookhaven National Laboratory have caused cancers and other illnesses in people in nearby communities is moving forward—still slowly.

BNL, after negotiations, agreed to settlements of approximately $600,000 for the first two groups of plaintiffs, each with about 18 persons. However, last month a settlement was not agreed to involving the final group of 18 plaintiffs, and State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti ordered that a trial be scheduled.

The class-action lawsuit, begun in January 1996, charges that the “actions of the defendant were grossly, recklessly and wantonly negligent and were done with an utter disregard for the health, safety, well-being and rights of the plaintiffs.” 

It accuses BNL of “failure to observe accepted relevant industry standards in the use, storage and disposal of hazardous and toxic substances” and says BNL itself had been “improperly located” by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission “on top of an underground aquifer which supplies drinking water to a large number of persons.”

Lead attorneys are A. Craig Purcell of Smithtown, a former president of the Suffolk County Bar Association, and Richard J. Lippes, whose Buffalo law firm successfully represented residents of the Love Canal neighborhood near Niagara Falls, severely polluted by the Hooker Chemical Co.

The lawsuit’s title is Osarczuk, et. al, vs. Associated Universities. Barbara Osarczuk had lived in North Shirley, just outside the BNL boundaries, for 28 years and attributed her thyroid and breast cancer to BNL. 

Purcell complains that that BNL “delayed” movement of the lawsuit through the decades. “They appealed everything.”      

The lawsuit was originally brought for $1 billion in damages. A critical turning point came in an appeal by BNL lawyers to the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court and it accepting BNL’s argument and ruling that “the nuclear radiation emitted by BNL did not exceed guidelines promulgated by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.” 

That left the plaintiffs limited, said Mr. Purcell, to sue for “loss of enjoyment of life, diminution of property values and the cost of hooking up to public water.”

BNL was established in 1947 by the Atomic Energy Commission on an 8 square mile former Army base in Upton to do atomic research and develop civilian uses of nuclear technology. The AEC, however, was abolished by Congress in 1974 after criticism of it being in conflict of interest as being both a promoter and regulator of nuclear power, and BNL is now under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Energy.

That it’s a source of contamination was confirmed in 1989 when it was designated by the federal government as a high-pollution Superfund site.   

The federal government in recent years began paying out millions of dollars to BNL employees in compensation for their getting cancer from BNL contamination and also provided compensation to families of BNL workers who died from BNL-linked cancer. The payouts to the BNL workers and families has come under the federal Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.

A book on radioactive pollution from BNL causing health impacts to residents of Shirley was published in 2008. “Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town” was authored by Kelly McMasters of Hofstra University, who grew up in Shirley. The book was the basis of the 2012 TV documentary “Atomic States of America.”

As McMasters has related in an interview: “I do believe there was a watershed moment in 1960, after the first radioactive leaks occurred, that the federal government or the scientists themselves should have realized that Shirley was the fastest growing town in the county, with a population that doubled within ten years, and that the middle of one of the largest sole-source drinking water aquifers in the country was not the best place for a nuclear laboratory.”                  

Purcell declares that the lawsuit, “now, nearly 25 years later… has still not been resolved despite Judge Farneti’s urging that the interests of justice would be better served by a fair and final resolution.” BNL and its lawyers “continue to nickel and dime their neighbors to this very day.” He charges that BNL “continues to show almost no regard for its neighbors… Is this any way for a government-funded agency to treat its neighbors?”