updated 2/14/2006 8:11:48 PM ET 2006-02-15T01:11:48

A federal jury recommended Tuesday that Dow Chemical Co. and the former Rockwell International Corp. pay $553.9 million to thousands of property owners who say their land was contaminated by plutonium from the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.

The jury concluded the two companies damaged private property around the site through negligence that caused “class members to be exposed to plutonium and (placed) them at some increased risk of health problems.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 13,000 people. The jury in U.S. District Court in Denver also said the damage from the radioactive material may never go away.

The verdict called for punitive damages of $110.8 million against Dow Chemical and $89.4 million against Rockwell. The jury also recommended the companies pay some $352 million in actual damages.

The final award is likely to be less because of limits in state and federal law, but could still reach $352 million after the judge reviews the verdict, said Louise Roselle, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs.

There was no immediate word on an appeal. Attorneys have said the government would cover any damages and legal bills for the companies because they were contractors operating the sprawling Cold War site near Denver on behalf of the Energy Department.

A department spokesman did not immediately return an after-hours message.

Jury deliberations in the class-action lawsuit took 18 days and followed a four-month trial. The suit claimed the plant contaminated neighboring land, lowering property values.

The now-defunct site made plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads for decades before it was closed in 1989. Much of the 6,240-acre site will be transformed into a wildlife refuge and last year, a contractor declared a 10-year, $7 billion cleanup project complete.

Milwaukee-based Rockwell, now known as Rockwell Automation, and Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical operated the plant at separate times under contract with the government.

The lawsuit claimed they intentionally mishandled radioactive waste and then tried to cover it up. Defense attorney David Bernick said claims of a cover-up were wrongheaded and that contamination offsite was minuscule and didn’t harm property values.

After the verdict, Bernick said the judge made significant mistakes in instructing the jury.

“The instructions made it apparent the judge was applying an extreme view of the law,” he said.

Among other things, Bernick said, the jury was allowed to award damages if it determined the companies were responsible for even one atom of plutonium on the plaintiffs’ properties. He also said the judge wrongly allowed certain testimony, including claims that the Energy Department was a conspirator.

Dow operated the plant from the 1950s until 1975; Rockwell ran it from 1975 until the plant was shut down.

At trial, attorneys for the landowners presented a study showing higher rates of lung cancer near the plant. Bernick dismissed the cancer claims as “junk science,” saying the study didn’t indicate how long the patients had lived near Rocky Flats.

In 1992, Rockwell pleaded guilty and agreed to pay an $18.5 million fine for water quality and other violations at Rocky Flats. Rockwell admitted it stored hazardous waste without a permit, and that it stored the wastes in containers that leaked, and that its actions caused hazardous waste to wind up in reservoirs that supplied drinking water to nearby cities.

The settlement culminated a lengthy investigation dubbed “Operation Desert Glow” in which FBI agents secretly monitored the discharge of pollutants into streams and the burning of hazardous waste at Rocky Flats.

Federal agents charged in an affidavit unsealed after a June 6, 1989, raid that Rockwell and Energy Department officials were aware of environmental violations and sought to conceal them.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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