William Perry Pendley

In May 1945, the United States asked Jesse Fox Cannon of Toole County, Utah, to sign a "Construction, Survey & Exploration Permit" to allow the Army upon 1,425 acres of mining claims Jesse Fox Cannon owned near the Army Dugway Proving Grounds in west-central Utah. Jesse Fox Cannon agreed; after all, a war was on; plus, the Army promised that, within 60 days of finishing, it would "leave the property in as good condition as it is on the date of the government's entry." In September 1945, Jesse Fox Cannon reentered his property and discovered that, instead of surveying and exploring the property, the Army had used it for "Project Sphinx," under which it dropped tons of high explosives and bombs, and incendiary and chemical weapons on Cannon's property.

Notwithstanding the demands by Jesse Fox Cannon and later his son, Dr. J. Floyd Cannon, that the United States fulfill its legal obligation to clean up their property, the federal government refused. In 1980, Dr. Cannon died, leaving the property to his children, who took up the crusade to have their land reclaimed and restored.

In 1993, nearly 50 years after the Army left the property, the United States began a paper shuffling exercise purportedly to determine something the Cannon family already knew: whether the Cannon land was a "formerly used defense site" that presented safety concerns for federal and state government agencies. In 1996, the federal government concluded that the Cannon property was one of the most contaminated sites in the country and would cost $12.7 million to reclaim. Then, the United States did nothing.

In 1998, exasperated members of the Cannon family sued the United States. The Utah federal district court awarded them the pittance of $161,000; however, in 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that the family had filed its lawsuit too late. Nonetheless, the Tenth Circuit lamented that the United States "has yet to fulfill its contractual obligations to the Cannon family [or] to recognize and appreciate Jesse F. Cannon's contribution to National Security during World War II." Worse yet, "the only action the Government has taken associated with [its 1996 study] is to defend this lawsuit."

In November 2005, members of the Cannon family, in one final effort to compel the United States to make good on its promise, filed a lawsuit against the United States, which later included Superfund claims. The United States has used Superfund, which seeks "prompt cleanup of hazardous waste sites and imposition of all cleanup costs on the responsible party," to sue hundreds of corporations, governmental entities, and private parties. The Cannons figured the law ought to apply against the federal government as well.


William Perry Pendley

William Perry Pendley is President and Chief Legal Officer at the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

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