By MIGUEL NAVROT
SANTA FE, NM, Nov. 15, 2000 (Albuquerque Journal)—Santa Fe's losing court bout over its 1997 ordinance restricting a nuclear laundry's radioactive discharge into the city sewer ended Tuesday with a $1.1 million settlement and the likely demise of the ordinance.
UniTech Services Group, formerly known as Interstate Nuclear Services, formally dropped its federal lawsuit against the city following the long-awaited settlement. In addition to the $1.1 million award, UniTech walks away virtually assured Santa Fe won't again enforce its ordinance, which limits the discharge of radioactive materials with half-lives of more than 100 days.
"This is a full vindication for the company," Boston attorney James Rehnquist, who represents the Massachusetts-based laundry, said of the settlement. Though UniTech didn't receive the entire $4.5 million in legal fees and damages it requested earlier this year, Rehnquist said the suit wasn't just over dollars, but the city's "illegal laws."
"This lawsuit wasn't really about the money," Rehnquist said, "but establishing the right of a business to operate in this community."
UniTech washed radioactively contaminated garments from Los Alamos National Laboratory at its Siler Road location for more than 30 years.
The award is covered by two city sources, administration officials said, $300,000 from the city's insurance company and $800,000 from money set aside by the lawmakers for liability costs.
City Attorney Peter Dwyer said he was happy to have the matter finished.
"We're happy to have this matter resolved and off the books," Dwyer said Tuesday. "I'm never happy to have to pay any claim, whatsoever, but at least now we can look forward."
The cash-strapped city could have been in a much tighter financial situation from the settlement. Santa Fe wasn't insured for a large settlement in the suit, meaning City Hall could have potentially paid for damages out of its own taxpayer coffers.
The case took a losing turn for the city in January, when U.S. District Judge Bruce D. Black ruled Santa Fe's 1997 ordinance was invalid because it infringed on state authority. The judgment in the company's favor noted the ordinance was 50 times stronger than existing state and federal guidelines and "beyond the city's authority," Black wrote.
UniTech later submitted claims for damages and attorney fees.
Santa Fe's discharge ordinance was approved at the urging of some city staffers and local nuclear energy opponents.
UniTech has trucked soiled garments from Los Alamos to its laundries in California and Washington since ceasing operations in 1996 on the orders of then-City Manager David Coss.
Area watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, which pushed for the ordinance and, most recently, called for any rescinding of the matter to be done in a public meeting, held off on comment Tuesday. Representative Suzanne Westerly said the group could have a statement today.
City Councilor Frank Monta
"I voted against it (the settlement), because I felt the reasons we approved it were economic," Monta
Councilor Cris Moore, who also urged passage of the ordinance, said he had little regret about passing the ordinance three years ago. The regulations could have taken into account naturally occurring radiation, Moore said, but added that other cities have had to spend millions cleaning their sewers of radioactive pollution.
"Although we lost, I think it's important for people to know that," Moore said. "We're trying to use our effluent to a greater and greater extent. I think we were justified in trying to keep the effluent free from radiation."
Fellow Councilor Patti Bushee, who also favored the ordinance, said she wasn't too surprised by the outcome.
"When you go up against something as powerful and financially endowed as (UniTech) and you're a small municipality that has to spread its finances and legal resources around for other concerns, I guess it can be expected," Bushee said.
UniTech Vice President George Bakevich said the company has plans to resume operations in Santa Fe but didn't give a target date. Bakevich said the company will make that decision soon.
"It's really a business decision," Bakevich said.
City officials invited UniTech back in April, but the company balked. Bakevich said he wanted to wait to see if the city would approve some other ordinance.
The larger victory for UniTech is two-fold, Rehnquist said: the city has agreed not to enforce its ordinance, and UniTech has a legal case to fight opposition other cities may try to push.
UniTech has laundries in 10 other U.S. cities.
"The important thing is the precedent that was set," Rehnquist said. "It sends a message to other businesses in this area."
Though Bushee and Moore said they hoped the city would continue to regulate UniTech's discharge if the company returns, Dwyer said otherwise.
"If the city intends to enforce that part of the ordinance, that would be problematic, in light of the settlement," Dwyer said.
(c) 1997 - 2000 Albuquerque Journal