The Paducah Sun

January 15, 2000

Digging ditched for now at DOE

By Bill Bartleman
The Paducah Sun

After just two of five trenches at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant have been dug, the U.S. Department of Justice has halted its investigation into contamination there.

The order to stop was issued Friday, the day after a fire had damaged a building containing materials used in the trenching operation. Officials said there was no connection between the fire and the delay in the investigation.

Seven agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigated the fire, which occurred in a metal storage building located outside the security fence and about a mile from the trenching operation.

Spokesman Don York said the cause was an electrical malfunction of a heater that ignited a nearby pile of plastic bags and cardboard boxes. "There was arcing and sparking, but ... it was completely accidental," York said Friday evening.

Bill Campbell, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Steve Reed, said the trenching was stopped for additional study to determine the best places to dig. The digging was being done around a U.S. Department of Energy landfill that was closed about five years ago.

While tests continue on material taken from the two trenches dug this week, there were indications that very little evidence was found to substantiate allegations in a lawsuit that former plant operators had falsified records about contamination and allegations about material dumped in the landfill.

The U.S. Department of Energy is paying for the trenching, which is costing about $1 million. The purpose is to decide if there is sufficient evidence of falsified records to warrant the federal government joining in the suit filed by current and former workers. The suit seeks to recover millions of dollars paid to the former operators based on performance in meeting certain levels of contamination. The former operators include Lockheed Martin Energy Systems.

A source with knowledge of the investigation said the Justice Department's decision to halt trenching was based on economics. "It is an expensive operation, and they weren't finding what they expected," the source said.

Campbell would not say what had happened between last week's start of the dig and Friday's decision to re-evaluate locations of the dig. He also would not comment when asked if the dig was yielding little useful information.

"We are going to dig five trenches in a fairly wide area, and we just want to make sure we are digging in the right place," he said. Recommendations from another geophysicist who has been hired to evaluate the site will help determine whether the digs will continue, he said.

The dig is just part of the Justice Department investigation. Officials also are reviewing plant records, interviewing current and former workers and testing contamination at other locations inside the plant.

Greg Cook - a spokesman for Bechtel Jacobs, the company hired to do the trenching - said the order to halt trenching came from Justice through the Department of Energy. "Our excavation team is on a stand-down," Cook said. "There will be no additional excavation unless we are directed to do so. We are told that (Justice) is re-evaluating what they want to do with the dig."

Cook said that in the first trench, investigators found roofing paper, metal flashing, a drum lid that appeared to come from a roofing material container, fly ash and a creek bed.

The second trench "yielded nothing but dirt and a creek bed. Based on these results, DOE asked us to stand down while (Justice) decides what to do."

Steve Wyatt, chief spokesman for DOE in Oak Ridge, Tenn., was out of the office Friday and unavailable for comment.