| Paducah Workers Sue Firms for Leaks By Joby Warrick |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 4, 1999; Page A1 Workers at the Department of Energy's Paducah, Ky., uranium plant filed a $10 billion lawsuit against three government contractors yesterday, accusing them of deliberately exposing thousands of employees to hidden radioactive and toxic hazards over nearly half a century.
The lawsuit represents the first outcry by current and former plant employees, who lined up outside a Paducah law office this week to take part in the court action. It seeks one of the largest damage awards ever claimed in a workers' class action and accuses former managers of misleading workers about the presence of plutonium and other radioactive material in the plant. The contaminants allegedly followed workers to their homes and posed a threat to family members.
Targeted in the suit are Lockheed Martin Corp. and Union Carbide Corp., two private contractors that operated the plant under the Department of Energy's supervision. It also names General Electric Co., producer of recycled uranium that was shipped to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in the 1950s and 1960s.
The recycled uranium contained small amounts of plutonium and other highly radioactive metals that the plant was not equipped to handle. Eventually, the materials spread through factory buildings and into the environment, including public lands near the site.
"After 47 years, the time has come for accountability, compensation and punishment," said William F. McMurry, one of two Kentucky lawyers who filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Paducah.
"When all is said and done, this case will reveal the egregious violations of laws designed to protect workers, and, sadly, it will reveal the deliberate intention to injure thousands of atomic workers," McMurry said.
An unrelated legal claim three months ago helped focus national attention on problems at the Paducah plant, which was built in 1952 to manufacture enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, Navy submarines and nuclear power plants. The earlier suit by three workers and an environmental group was filed under the federal False Claims Act, which is intended to expose fraud against the government.
The corporations named as defendants in the new worker lawsuit had not received copies of the complaint and declined to comment.
The $10 billion in compensation sought includes $5 billion in punitive damages. The sum is based on a class of at least 10,000 former and current workers and their family members.
"People are scared and rightfully so," said McMurry, a Louisville trial lawyer. "These people are desperate for answers and nobody is giving them answers."
The suit alleges that the corporations reaped unjust profits by failing to properly monitor and protect workers from radioactive and chemical hazards in the workplace. It also accuses the companies of committing battery by exposing workers to "extremely and illegally high doses of radiation, including plutonium."
Besides posing risks in the workplace, the contaminants attached to workers' skin and clothing and resulted in "increased risk of contracting radiation-related diseases to the spouses and members of the employees' households," the complaint states.
The past conduct of Paducah contractors is also the focus of a full-scale probe launched last month by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson following an investigation by The Washington Post into conditions at the plant.
"I will hold all contractors, past and present, responsible for their actions," Richardson said in announcing the probe Aug. 8.
Yesterday, Energy Department investigators returned to Washington from the plant after completing the first phase of a fact-finding mission. Senior manager David Stadler said the 14 members of the team had collected soil and water samples along with a "tremendous amount" of data in their effort to determine whether current plant conditions pose hazards to workers and neighbors.
"This information will help us determine what actually occurred and what must be done to protect workers, the public and the environment," Stadler said in a statement as the team prepared to leave Paducah. "We will continue to do whatever is necessary to resolve the public and workers' concerns."
The investigation's second phase will focus on conditions at the plant prior to 1990, when the worst problems are said to have occurred. That effort is expected to last several months.
The increased scrutiny has brought a steady stream of problems to light. Earlier this week, a plant contractor briefly suspended a construction project after the Energy Department team found that workers were not being properly trained or monitored for radiation exposure. The 25 employees had been working at the plant since May, constructing a storage lot for 10-ton casks of depleted uranium, a source of gamma radiation. Until Tuesday, workers had not worn radiation detection badges or taken radiation classes.
Energy Department contractor Bechtel Jacobs Co. attributed the lapse to a faulty calculation, which caused officials to underestimate likely worker radiation doses. The company said the problems have been corrected.
Also Tuesday, plant technicians reported the discovery of radioactive contamination on a surplus computer that was marked for release to local schools or other nonprofit groups. Radiation readings were three times higher than the plant's "action" level, the limit which requires immediate steps to protect workers. "The radiation protection system worked exactly as it was supposed to," and no contaminated equipment was released to the public, said Elizabeth Stuckle, spokesman for U.S. Enrichment Corp.