IN OUR OPINION
March 7, 2000
How much more evidence do federal officials need before they conclude that former workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant may have been exposed to beryllium, a highly toxic metal?
The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. Traces of beryllium have been found in more than 100 groundwater samples taken from the plant site and nearby property. The amounts of beryllium detected in all of the samples from monitoring wells exceeded levels considered safe for public drinking water supplies.
Some of the samples had relatively strong concentrations of the lightweight metal, which is machined for use in nuclear weapons and reactors. The highest levels of beryllium were found near the infamous "drum mountain" and two classified burial sites that are believed to contain old bomb parts.
A recent Department of Energy report on contamination at the Paducah plant indicated plant workers may have used beryllium to coat nuclear weapons parts. The DOE cited an agency memo from the 1980s that said the highly toxic metal was present at the Paducah facility.
The substance is extremely toxic when particles of it are inhaled. Beryllium can cause serious and sometimes fatal lung ailments.
If beryllium was used in the Paducah plant's machine shop, it's certainly possible that workers inhaled or ingested particles of the metal. The weight of evidence suggests workers were put at risk, and that they should be included in a federal program to compensate workers who became ill as a result of exposure to beryllium.
Last summer DOE announced that it was seeking to provide $11 million in benefits for workers exposed to beryllium and certain other toxic substances. Paducah was not included in the original proposal because DOE officials said they didn't believe beryllium was used here.
Despite growing evidence that the toxic metal was transported to the Paducah plant, DOE officials continue to skate around the question of whether workers there were unknowingly exposed to beryllium.
An epidemiologist working on a DOE-sponsored health study at the plant said workers can be tested for beryllium exposure, assuming there's "sufficient evidence" the metal was used in Paducah.
Walter Perry, a spokesman for DOE, said the agency still is trying to find out what the "big picture" is concerning beryllium use at the plant.
It's certainly difficult for plant workers and the people of Paducah to know what the big picture is at the facility, given that it's only recently been learned that it was used for secret national defense work as well as for enriching uranium.
If DOE - the agency responsible for overseeing plant operations for many years - doesn't know what went on there and still can't figure it out, the federal government is guilty of appalling negligence and indifference.
A private company guilty of similar negligence no doubt would be heavily penalized by the federal government.
It's increasingly clear the government put the health of workers at risk without informing them of the hazards. The community and the plant employees accepted the modest risks associated with a uranium enrichment operation, but people here were not informed that parts of the plant were used in the production of nuclear weapons.
Now former workers and the community are being told that the government is having all sorts of trouble determining the extent to which it contaminated the local environment and put the health of employees at risk.
During a visit to Paducah, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson assured local residents the federal government finally was prepared to accept responsibility for any damage to the environment or the health of workers it caused during its Cold War-era management of the plant.
If that is indeed the case - and many people in this area are understandably skeptical - then DOE should move as quickly as possible to include Paducah workers in the compensation program for workers exposed to beryllium.
There no longer is any serious doubt that beryllium was used at the gaseous diffusion plant. It's time for federal officials to fully acknowledge the presence of beryllium in Paducah, and then show they're serious about accepting responsibility for the risks they created for unknowing workers.
The Editorial Page