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Illinois town sues state seeking cancer, pollution data for southern Illinois uranium facility

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Monday, October 7, 2019  |  Article  |  By Cole Lauterbach | The Center Square

Environment (41) , Nuclear (67) , Public safety (49a)
Lawyers for a community in southern Illinois are suing the state claiming state officials are withholding data that would help municipal officials prove a local uranium enrichment facility caused contamination.

Residents of Metropolis in southern Illinois filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Honeywell in May 2018 alleging contamination in the area from Honeywell's nearby uranium enrichment plant. The judge in the suit is asking for information from the state emergency management agency and public health department but, despite a subpoena and a Freedom of Information Act request, the agencies won’t turn over the information citing a number of reasons.

“Restriction of the vital data the community needs, paid for with taxpayer funds, is outrageous, unacceptable, and completely contrary to the interests of these citizens,” said attorney Richard Kruger, who represents the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit. “It should not take a lawsuit for the state agencies to do their jobs.”

One of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs is James Clayborne Jr., the former Illinois State Senate Majority Leader who is suing the state to nullify pay freezes and furlough days. In a statement, he called the resistance by the agencies to release the data “unacceptable.”

The city of Metropolis and Massac County could pass local resolutions condemning the agencies’ denials.

The Illinois Department of Public Health said it was abiding by state law.

"Information in the Illinois State Cancer Registry is protected information and is only provided in aggregate form specific to a person’s request," IDPH spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said. "Providing more granular data could lead to the identification of an individual, especially in less populous areas of the state. Providing information that could lead to the identification of an individual violates several Acts for a breach of confidentiality."

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency said it tried to provide relevant information.

"The FOIA request was overbroad and the agency requested that the scope be narrowed in an attempt to fulfill the document request," IEMA spokeswoman Rebecca Clark said. "The requester chose not to comply with the request."

The people suing Honeywell, joined by the city and county, allege residents there have gotten forms of cancer commonly caused by uranium contamination.

“The property is unsafe and contaminated as well as members of the community getting a number of cancers,” Kruger said.

The facility is responsible for about one-fifth of the world’s uranium hexafluoride production. Uranium hexafluoride is used to fuel nuclear power plants. It is the only conversion facility in the United States.

Corrections and Clarifications

A previous version of the story misidentified the state agency from which Kruger is seeking information. It is the Emergency Management Agency, not the Environmental Protection Agency.