The Paducah Sun

February 2, 2000

Justice awaits plant dig tests

By Joe Walker
Sun Business Editor

The U.S. Department of Justice is awaiting results of geophysical testing to decide whether to resume digging behind the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant to see if soil contamination poses a significant health threat.

Department spokesman Bill Campbell said the tests, which use three scientific tools to determine what is in the ground behind the plant, will help "decide what to do next." He did not say when the results are expected.

Digging ceased Jan. 14 after only two of five trenches were dug to take samples near a closed plant landfill off Ogden Landing Road. Various sources told the Sun then that sampling had revealed little to support federal lawsuit claims by three plant workers and an environmental group that past plant contractors had secretly poisoned workers and the public for decades.

On Tuesday, Campbell would not discuss the nature or extent of the findings, except to confirm that digging uncovered radioactive roofing materials believed to have come from past plant construction.

"We're still investigating all leads and as (U.S. Attorney Steve Reed) said at the outset of the dig, our purpose was to determine if anything is present to answer a question that we believe the public should know the answer to," Campbell said.

Earlier, Reed said trenching was stopped for additional study to determine the best places to dig.

Asked if the excavated material posed an undue health risk, Campbell declined to answer that question specifically. But he said the Justice Department and Kentucky Environmental Protection Cabinet agreed that material "over a certain level" of contamination would be placed in containers.

"By far the vast majority of the materials did not have to be containerized," Campbell said.

Department of Energy contractor Bechtel Jacobs did the trenching. Bechtel Jacobs spokesman Greg Cook said earlier 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 only dirt and a creek bed, he said.

The Department of Energy, which owns the plant, is paying for the trenching, expected to cost about $1 million. It is intended to determine if there is sufficient evidence of falsified records to warrant the Justice Department's joining in the false-claims suit filed last year. The suit seeks to recover millions of dollars paid to the former operators based on performance in meeting certain levels of contamination.

The dig is one 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.

Last year, the Energy Department conducted its own probe of current and past health and safety practices at the plant. DOE insists the plant is currently safe, although the investigation led to various deficiencies, such as in worker safety practices and posting contaminated areas. A second report, keying on historical problems, reportedly will be released within a few days.

Meanwhile, various sources told the Sun that the Department of Defense may be interested in certain aspects of past plant practices as a result of investigative statements given by longtime past employees. Former workers have been questioned as part of ongoing investigations and a separate worker health study. The Defense Department interest reportedly keys on materials or records in one or more old warehouses at the plant, which in its early years was used for nuclear weapons production.

Asked about possible Defense Department interest in the plant, DOE spokesman Steve Wyatt referred questions to Campbell. Neither Campbell nor Cook would comment.