The Paducah Sun

January 8, 2000

Justice officials dig for DOE truth

By Bill Bartleman
The Paducah Sun

U.S. Department of Justice officials hope to decide by May if they will join in a federal lawsuit alleging fraud by past operators of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

Steve Reed, U.S. attorney for Kentucky's Western District, visited the plant Friday to watch as employees of Bechtel Jacobs Co. began digging a trench just a few yards from a landfill that was leaking "black ooze" last summer.

Reed said five trenches will be dug around the perimeter so soil samples can be taken and tested for the presence of radioactive and chemical contamination.

Reed said he wants to determine if any previously unreported waste and contamination was placed in the U.S. Department of Energy landfill that closed five years ago.

A whistle-blower's lawsuit filed by current and former employees alleges that contaminated material was illegally placed in the landfill by former operators, and the operators lied about contamination to earn performance bonuses worth millions of dollars.

The suit claims the contamination has caused illnesses for workers and nearby residents, and that the contamination is spreading from the plant in groundwater, air and the soil.

If the Justice Department determines from the tests that the suit has merit, it would become a plaintiff and seek millions of dollars in refunds from former operators, including Lockheed Martin Corp. The current and former employees who filed the original action would receive up to 30 percent of the amount awarded in the suit.

"What you see here is digging for the truth," Reed said just moments after the digging began at 2:31 p.m. "We will take the truth ... and evidence and go wherever it requires us to go."

He promised a thorough investigation. U.S. District Judge Thomas Russell has given the Department of Justice until May to determine if it will get involved. Reed said he hopes that testing and other aspects of the investigation are completed by then. If not, he said, they'll ask Russell for more time.

Digging the five trenches is a slow process that will take at least three weeks. Workers will test each bucket of dirt removed from the trench.

After digging down 10 to 15 feet, they will take soil samples that Department of Justice officials will share with DOE, the state Natural Resources Cabinet and Lockheed Martin. The samples will then be tested at different labs and compared. Reed said he didn't know how long it would take to get the test results.

The cost of the dig and testing is estimated at $1 million and is being paid by the U.S. Department of Energy from a special fund. DOE officials said it was not being diverted from cleanup funds allocated for the Paducah plant.

DOE officials last summer investigated the source of the leaking black ooze and said it appeared to be a combination of roofing materials and old oil.