The Paducah Sun

February 18, 2000

Bechtel Jacobs records seized

By Joe Walker
Sun Business Editor


The U.S. Department of Energy has seized computer records from the Kevil offices of its lead environmental contractor as part of a Justice Department probe into a federal false-claims lawsuit.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Campbell, who is heading the investigation, confirmed that the hard drives of about 30 computers were obtained starting Tuesday, as well as backup tapes of the computer system operated by Bechtel Jacobs Co. Campbell said agents of the DOE inspector general's office took the records after serving a subpoena.

No computer records were obtained from the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, for which Bechtel Jacobs does environmental and waste management work, Campbell said.

"What they did was essentially make a mirror image of the hard drive," Campbell said. "The DOE inspector general retained the original hard drive and left a mirror image with each computer."

He would not say specifically what evidence was being sought but said the records were obtained "to facilitate the investigation" into the false-claims suit filed last year by three plant employees and a large nuclear activist group. Campbell said a federal judge has given his office until early April to finish its work.

"At this point, we do have a court-imposed deadline that we're working fervently to meet," he said. "If there is additional evidence that we have to evaluate, then we might file a petition with the court (for an extension). But at this point no decision has been made about that."

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court at Paducah, alleges that Lockheed Martin (formerly Martin Marietta) fraudulently obtained millions of dollars in performance bonuses from DOE while secretly poisoning workers and the public. Justice Department investigators are trying to determine if the allegations, denied by Lockheed Martin, have enough merit for the government to join the suit as a plaintiff.

Among the claims is that the company compiled DOE-published annual environmental reports that contained false information and deceived the public. Neither DOE nor Bechtel Jacobs is a defendant in the suit, but many Bechtel Jacobs employees once worked for Lockheed Martin, maintaining computer records of environmental sampling and cleanup, and waste management. Bechtel Jacobs replaced Lockheed Martin as the contractor two years ago.

Some light may have been shed in a DOE fact sheet distributed a week ago to employees of Bechtel Jacobs and its subcontractors in the Kevil area and to employees of USEC Inc. who work at the plant.

The fact sheet revealed that tritium, a radioactive component of nuclear-bomb triggers, was found in five of eight outfalls sampled in May 1991. One of the outfalls, where treated effluent drains into creeks, is in the northwest corner of the plant near a classified burial ground containing parts of nuclear bombs without warheads. The fact sheet also said that tritium reservoirs could have smelted or buried at the plant during the Cold War era.

Other documents published by DOE say that fewer than 20 grams of tritium typically are in reservoirs, which are vessels used to help detonate nuclear bombs. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that is harmful if ingested. About 90 percent of the substance decays into a form of helium in 40 years, the department says.

Although the traces of tritium found in drainage were well below safe drinking-water standards, there is no record that the findings, made by Martin Marietta, were disclosed to state environmental protection officials, DOE says.

Mark York, spokesman for the Kentucky Natural Resources Cabinet, said that before the fact sheet came out, the state was unaware that tritium was present in drainage at the plant. The state regulates effluents by issuing permits that are supposed to list all contaminants for monitoring purposes.

Since 1991, tritium has not been mentioned in annual environmental reports. York said data are reviewed by the state before they go into the reports. Bechtel Jacobs officials said the firm has not seen the substance in sampling in the past two years.

York said the state knew that some materials used to detonate bombs were in a landfill.

"We knew the location but were not aware of any other issues related to (tritium and nuclear weaponry)," he said. "We'll be requiring information from DOE and will be seeking to get regular reports on monitoring for tritium."

The computer records seizure was the latest in a string of intriguing incidents at the Bechtel Jacobs offices and the plant.

A week ago, FBI agents entered the plant and asked security officers to guard five classified records storage areas there. While issuing the fact sheet, DOE banned the shredding of all documents, even paper jammed in office equipment. That followed disclosure of a false-claims statement from a plant health physics manager who was worried about worker safety because he was told as much as 1,600 tons of old nuclear weapons parts had been buried at the plant.

Earlier this week, sources said the Central Intelligence Agency had at least one agent at the plant to interview some employees, although it was unclear why. CIA spokesman Tom Crispell said he could not confirm the report, but said CIA presence at the plant would be "highly unusual" because the CIA has no domestic jurisdiction.

"The agency is an international collector of intelligence. It operates abroad and not in the United States," he said. "Those would be U.S. weapons systems. We have enough problems worrying about foreign weapons systems. That's completely outside our legal portfolio."

USEC Inc. is known to be looking at gas centrifuge, a procedure used extensively in some foreign countries, as a more efficient replacement for expensive gaseous diffusion to enrich uranium. Crispell said it is more plausible for the CIA to be involved in intelligence gathering for that issue, but that is speaking hypothetically.

DOE spokesman Walter Perry and Campbell referred questions about the CIA to Crispell. "I'm not in a position to respond to that right now," Campbell said.