Benzene case to go before feds

by John O'Brien |
Apr. 25, 2006, 4:01am

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank.

CHARLESTON - The National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank can locate pretty much anything in this galaxy.

Right now, though, the location of who's to blame for the death of one of its workers is escaping it.

Donita Taylor, representing the estate of her son Matthew Belford, filed a lawsuit April 12 in Kanawha Circuit Court charging Comsat Corporation, Radiation Systems' Universal Antennas Division, Lockheed Martin and Harry Morton, an individual, with negligently causing the death of her son, who she says died two years ago from benzene exposure.

Those defendants responded to the lawsuit by claiming that the Federal Government is to blame.

"They're saying any conduct which resulted in exposure and injury to Matthew Belford was done at the direction of fulfilling a contract with the government," said Guy Bucci, who is representing Taylor. "This is the first time I've run into this in 36 years. It's a form of immunity. They're saying we should sue the Federal Government."

Belford was an iron worker who helped build the observatory in Pocahontas County. It features the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world with more than two acres of collecting area in its dish.

Bucci, of the Charleston law firm Bucci, Bailey and Javins, feels his listed defendants are the proper ones.

"Our argument is the opposite (of the defendants')," he said. "They are supposed to follow the safety rules and guidelines."

A hearing will be held in federal court in Charleston before Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. regarding the matter.

Taylor's lawsuit says Belford was exposed to certain types of paints that contain benzene while working on the construction of the observatory, and that the exposure resulted in the acute myelogenous leukemia that caused his death April 16, 2004.

She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages. Bucci said it is too early to comment further on the case.

Benzene is an aromatic hydrocarbon that is produced by the burning of natural products. It is a component of products derived from coal and petroleum and is found in gasoline and other fuels and is used to make some types of rubbers, lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides.

Natural sources of benzene include volcanoes and forest fires. Benzene is also a natural part of crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, breathing very high levels of benzene for a very long period of time can cause a decrease in red blood cells potentially leading to anemia or leukemia. Sustained breathing of lesser levels can cause drowsiness, dizziness, headaches or unconsciousness.

Benzene litigation has grown rampant with cases just like Taylor's. Not many of them, though, deal with a government contract.

"They say this was a result of discharging the contract (with the government)," Bucci said. "You had 90 iron workers at any given moment putting on different paints and coatings. That's a lot of exposure."

Kanawha Circuit Court case number 06-C-667

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