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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals says that the Cannon family deserves compensation for World War II-era bomb contamination on their land in Utah's west desert, but the court is powerless to help them.
The district court in Utah had ruled in favor of M. Louise Cannon and Allan Robert Cannon in their claim against the government, but the appeals court, in a ruling released on Monday, said that was a mistake, and the courts have no authority to award damages in the case.
The case stretches back to 1945 and the Yellow Jacket Mine in the desert west of Salt Lake City. Jesse F. Cannon, grandfather of the plaintiffs, agreed to allow the U.S. Army to drop bombs and test munitions on his land, which is near an Army bombing test range in Tooele County.
Unexploded ordnance and chemical contamination remained on the 1,400-acre property and rendered the mines useless.
The Army had agreed to leave Cannon's property in as good a condition as they found it. But Cannon, now dead, and his children and grandchildren, have been trying to get the government to make good on that promise ever since.
"The United States Government has yet to fully recognize and appreciate Jesse F. Cannon's contribution to national security during World War II," the court wrote. "The government should have lived up to its obligations long ago."
But, the court ruled, there is a two-year statute of limitations for filing claims of this type, and it has expired.
Lawyers for the Cannons had argued that the lingering contamination on the land amounted to ongoing misconduct, and the time limit should not have expired.
The appeals court rejected that argument, however. The law that applies to this claim requires the federal court to look at Utah law to determine whether the misconduct was a single act or an ongoing condition.
Utah courts "look solely at the act ... and not the harm resulting from the act," the 10th Circuit Court wrote.
Though the court ruled in the government's favor, circuit court judges Carlos F. Lucero, Bobbie R. Baldock and Terrence L. O'Brien didn't have many kind words for the defendants.
"While not condoning the government's abysmal failure over the past half-century to clean up the test site, we hold (the applicable law) bars plaintiff's FTCA claim for money damages," the ruling says.
FTCA is the Federal Tort Claims Act, which spells out when the government can be liable for damages.
"The Cannon's remedy at this stage is political ... not legal," the ruling says.
The government had given Cannon around $3,000 in compensation in the late 1940s, but court papers show that Cannon accepted the money before he knew that chemicals and explosives left on his land would make mining impossible unless it was cleaned up.
Ryan M. Harris, an attorney who represents the Cannons, said Tuesday he's not yet sure what his next move might be.
"Obviously, we're pretty disappointed with the ruling. Our clients have certainly been through a lot and been treated pretty poorly by the government along the way," Harris said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Salt Lake City, which presented the government's case, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)