November 2, 1999
Plant workers' bodies to be dug up
By Bill Bartleman
The bodies of three former workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant will be exhumed later this month as attorneys prepare their case for a $10 billion suit filed against former operators of the plant.
Bill McMurry of Louisville, one of the lead attorneys in a class-action suit filed Sept. 3, said the survivors of Joe Harding, H.C. "Ladd" Mathis and Charles Edward Harris have given permission to have the bodies exhumed.
All three men died of cancer. The federal suit claims that workers and their families have suffered physical and emotional injuries because of exposure to radioactive materials at the plant.
This will be the second time Harding's body has been exhumed.
"We are simply going to have the bones analyzed for uranium content, plutonium content and neptunium content," McMurry said. "We believe the results will be just as profound as the results were in the (previous) Harding case."
Before his death on March 1, 1980, Harding claimed that his abdominal cancer was caused by work-related contamination. He also claimed that Union Carbide Corp., which at the time operated the plant, falsified records to cover up his exposure.
After his death, Harding's wife filed for work-related compensation. As part of that action, his body was exhumed, and his bones were tested by a lab in Canada. The results indicated his radiation level was 1,700 times above normal limits.
In court action, Union Carbide questioned the accuracy of those results after some of the samples were lost. The claim for benefits eventually was denied. The U.S. Department of Energy conducted its own investigation and also concluded that Harding's illness was not work-related.
Amid new allegations of contamination at the plant and allegations that worker illness were covered up, Harding's case is attracting new attention from DOE and attorneys because he was one of the first to go public with his claims.
McMurry said he isn't sure when the bodies will be exhumed but hopes all of the arrangements can be finalized in a week or two. He said he is coordinating the work of a local funeral home, cemetery workers, a vault company, a pathologist and the laboratory that will do the testing.
A permit must be obtained from the McCracken County Health Department to exhume the bodies. Amanda Cole, who processes the permits, said an application must be filed by a funeral home that will oversee the exhumations. She said obtaining a permit is a rare but routine procedure. "I've never had one denied," she said.
McMurry said the process involves digging up a grave, removing the sealed vault, opening the vault and then taking the casket to a hospital or funeral home so that a pathologist can take the bone samples that will be sent to a lab. "It takes only about 30 minutes to take the samples," he said.
After the testing is completed, the casket is returned to the cemetery and placed in a new vault.
McMurry did not identify the lab that will do the testing but said it is located outside the United States. "It is a lab that hasn't done any work for the Department of Energy," which owns the plant that is now leased to the United States Enrichment Corp.
Harding, who was 58 when he died, worked at the plant from 1952 until 1971. He died March 1, 1980. Early in his career, he worked as a process operator, mixing powdered uranium with fluorine and other chemicals. In a journal that he kept, Harding said the air inside the building was often heavy with uranium dust that he inhaled.
Harris worked as a machinist at the plant. Other information about his career was not available.
Mathis worked at the plant from 1971 until he died of cancer in July 1998 at the age of 53. At the time of his death, he was the director of training and human resources development. Before that assignment, he worked in numerous jobs around the plant.
The $10 billion suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Paducah on Sept. 3 against Union Carbide Corp., Martin Marietta, Lockheed Martin and General Electric Co. The first three are former operators of the plant; General Electric shipped spent fuel to Paducah for reprocessing.
Attorneys say that the class-action suit could eventually apply to more than 10,000 current and former plant employees and members of their families.
Besides making claims of illness, the suit alleges that workers were unknowingly exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation and are suffering emotional distress because they fear becoming sick.