BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
"Dismissed" is the latest word from U.S. District Court Judge J. Ronnie Greer concerning the civil lawsuit against Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) and prior owners of the company for allegedly releasing hazardous materials into the environment.
Of the 11 claims made in the lawsuit, Greer dismissed 10 on the basis that state law is pre-empted by the federal Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act -- a federal law that defines and addresses the liability of all U.S. non-military nuclear facilities.
"The Act limited the civil liability of nuclear plant operators and provided federal funds to help pay damages caused by nuclear accidents," Greer explained in his Dec. 21 ruling.
The ruling granted NFS's motion to dismiss the lawsuit's claims on the basis of failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
"The Price-Anderson Act has been amended three times, most notably in 1988.
"The 1988 amendments created federal jurisdiction for public liability actions arising from nuclear incidents."
The remaining claim of the 11 was dismissed by Judge Greer on the basis that the plaintiffs failed, he ruled, to "prove a breach of the federal numerical dose limits."
Under case law relating to situations of this kind, he said, a breach of the federal numerical dose limits is necessary in order for plaintiffs in a lawsuit to prove the need for public liability action under the Price-Anderson Act.
While the judge acknowledged claims made in the lawsuit and its amendments indicating that NFS had breached other federal safety standards, the judge said that the plaintiffs "totally fail to provide any factual allegations which would support their allegation of the breach of an applicable federal safety standard."
Moreover, the judge denied a motion by the plaintiffs to make a second amendment to their complaint.
He said that the proposed additional amendment added factual information not sufficient to satisfy the reasons for dismissing the lawsuit. The amendment was therefore "futile," according to his ruling.
The NFS facility, which supplies nuclear fuel to the U.S. Navy and processes weapons-grade uranium into nuclear reactor fuel, is located in Erwin, near the banks of the Nolichucky River.
It is about 28 miles upstream from Greeneville.
The lawsuit alleged "repeated releases of hazardous and radioactive substances into the area surrounding the [f]acility," according to Judge Greer's memorandum released with his ruling.
The alleged actions of this kind by NFS, according to the lawsuit, resulted in emotional distress, property damage, cancer and other diseases, and even, in some instance, death.
The lawsuit was filed in June 2011 on behalf of the plaintiffs by Greeneville lawyer John T. Milburn Rogers.
After beginning with 19 plaintiffs, the number of plaintiffs had grown to more than 140, with two high-profile national law firms joining the plaintiffs' legal team -- Motley Rice, of Charleston, S.C., and Napoli Bern Ripka LLP, of New York City.
The lawsuit named as defendants not only NFS, but also a number of other companies that either previously owned or had interests in the NFS facility.
One such defendant in the case, Chevron Corporation, had filed a motion to dismiss its involvement on the basis of lack of personal jurisdiction in Tennessee.
While Judge Greer noted in his ruling that both the plaintiffs and the defendants spent "a significant amount of ink" over whether the corporation had sufficient contacts in Tennessee to give the court here personal jurisdiction, Greer appears to side-step all such debate in his ruling.
"There is a more straightforward reason why this federal court has personal jurisdiction over Chevron, regardless of its contacts with the State of Tennessee," the judge explained in his ruling.
He then cites case law that, in his opinion, would indicate that the case is a federal question, therefore extending personal jurisdiction to the entire United States.
Greer did not give consideration to other motions made by the defense (such as a motion against the plaintiffs' desire for a class-action lawsuit), calling those motions "premature" during oral arguments in June of this year.
NFS President Joe Henry expressed his appreciation for and approval of the court's decision in a Thursday news release.
"We are pleased that the U.S. District Court ruled in our favor," Henry said in the release.
"Although we recognize the possibility that the plaintiffs could seek to appeal the court's decision, we consider this ruling to be an important decision for all defendants in the case.
"We remain committed to operating safely and securely, protecting our employees, the public, and the environment," he added.
"We look forward to a long future of manufacturing the fuel that keeps our nation safe."
Greeneville-native Park Overall, a former actress and environmental activist, has been highly critical of the NFS facility and has strongly supported the lawsuit.
She has alleged that two properties she owns along the Nolichuckey River in Greene County have sustained damage she attributes to NFS.
During a telephone interview on Friday, Overall was critical of the New York law firm helping represent the plaintiffs.
"I have a great deal of respect and love for John [Rogers]," she said. "We're not blaming John at all. It was not John that was incompetent.
"The [other attorneys involved] did not provide [Greer] with the information that he required, which is very confusing for us because we provided ... those lawyers with the information the judge wanted," she added.
She was referring to the facts Greer said the plaintiffs failed to provide concerning any breach of federal safety standards.
Overall stated that those involved in the case have data she said was collected by Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, in relation to a blended low-uranium project.
"He said NFS's data was way off and highly underestimated. So we have proof," she argued.
The competency of some of the attorneys was not the only thing that Overall questioned, however.
"If you read it carefully, it appears to me the judge is blaming our attorneys. I'm pretty sure we'll appeal. It looks to me like an attorney problem," she said.
"There's also great confusion about the Price-Anderson Act. It does not apply in this case, and I'm sorry that Judge Greer's helpers don't realize that.
"Whoever wrote this [court decision] has misinterpreted the Price-Anderson Act, which gives us full recourse for a retrial," she later added.
"The Price-Anderson Act was written in case of a reactor -- a power-producing reactor -- if it was to have a major accident, people would have financial recourse.
"Nuclear Fuel Services is not a reactor. Price-Anderson is for reactors; it is not for fuel-cycling facilities.
"We can have an automatic retrial on that alone."
Efforts by The Greeneville Sun to reach Rogers for comment were unsuccessful.