The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Tuesday, August 08, 2000
Paducah, Kentucky

2 DOE suits ask billions to ill workers
The new actions also call government officials as well as contractors to task for illnesses of employees at the Paducah plant.

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

The third and fourth major federal lawsuits have been filed over contamination and alleged radiation poisoning of some workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

A 34-page suit, seeking $2 billion in compensatory and $2 billion in punitive damages, was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Paducah by attorney David R. Smith of Nashville, Tenn. It was filed on behalf of workers who sustained rare pituitary tumors ‘‘as a result of excessive, unlawful and nonconsensual exposures to radioactive substances including plutonium and neptunium.’’

A similar suit was filed Monday in U.S. District in Louisville. That suit, filed by attorney William F. McMurry of Louisville, seeks $5 billion each in compensatory and punitive damages.

Each suit names Union Carbide Corp., Martin Marietta Corp., Martin Marietta Energy Systems Inc., Martin Marietta Utility Services Inc., Lockheed Martin Corp., Lockheed Martin Energy Systems Inc., Lockheed Martin Utility Services Inc., General Electric Co., E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., NL Industries Inc. and NLO Inc.

Carbide and Lockheed Martin are former plant contractors. GE, DuPont and National Lead ran nuclear fuel facilities that delivered contaminated material to the Paducah plant.

The Paducah suit names Energy Secretary Bill Richardson as a defendant — alleging government officials and their contractors conspired to poison uranium workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

Plaintiffs are former plant workers James E. Dew and Jerome Vandeven, their wives, and Betty Jane Lynch, administrator of the estate of former plant employee Robert E. Lynch. Dew and Vandeven survived pituitary tumors, the suit claims, and Lynch died in 1986 after two pituitary surgeries and radiation-induced complications.

Smith said his suit differs from previous actions because it:

--Seeks to hold a class of government officials and their contractors individually accountable for radiation poisoning. The other two suits were against contractors only.

"The first suit theorized the government had been defrauded," Smith said. "I'm turning it around and saying quite the opposite. This suit alleges that the Atomic Energy Commission (DOE's predecessor) and its employees were a party to the fraud."

--Specifically names Richardson, who, since the previous suits were filed last year, has conducted lengthy investigations and admitted governmental wrongdoing. The lawsuit would require him to identify many unknown government workers who allegedly perpetuated the fraud.

"We're not suing him as being personally liable. We're serving the suit on him and saying he's the guy to identify these people," Smith said.

--Alleges workers' constitutional rights were violated by their being exposed to radiation and denied information about it. The suit names individual federal government officials in the same manner as a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case permitted FBI agents to be sued for storming a house and beating up the occupants despite not having a search warrant, Smith said.

--Is a would-be class action for all workers who had cancer or rare pituitary tumors as a result of working at the plant. "It has been well-demonstrated that radiation has a particular affinity for the pituitary gland," the lawsuit alleges.

There were 3,000 to 10,000 people who worked at the plant from 1952 to 1998, but the actual number of people with pituitary tumors and radiation-induced cancers is unknown, the lawsuit says.

Dew, now of Gallatin, Tenn., worked at the plant from July 1951 to November 1988. He was process manager for the separation of uranium isotopes and finished his career as a senior staff member for the plant manager. He was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor in 1964 and underwent radiation treatment in 1965, the suit claims.

Vandeven, of Paducah, worked at the plant from 1955 to 1994 mainly in the inspection and plant engineering departments. He had surgery for a pituitary tumor in 1984.

Paducahan Lynch worked at the plant from 1952, when he was involved in enrichment operations, until 1985, when he received disability retirement. He had surgery in 1977 to remove a pituitary tumor and in 1979 to remove the entire gland when the tumor came back. The lawsuit alleges the men got sick from excessive exposure to radiation, including neptunium and plutonium that were contaminants in uranium from spent reactor fuel recycled by the plant.

After publicity mounted, the plaintiffs contacted Smith, who submitted their medical records to a "world leading expert" on pituitary tumors, the suit contends.

In an interview, Smith said he would not identify the expert until directed by a judge. "I just don't want to have him barraged with questions right now," Smith said.

Besides Richardson, 16 men employed by the Atomic Energy Commission or successor DOE are named as defendants. They are K.C. Brooks, Bernie Stiller, Ewart Nitschke, Shields Warren, Gordon Dean, John Nehemias, Arthur Schoen, "Mr. Greenlaff," Claire Palmiter, Charles Keller and Drs. Ernest Goodpasture, Allen Greg, John Bugher, William Lotz, C.S. Shoup and Donald Ross.

Brooks, Stiller and Nitschke were employed with the AEC at Paducah, Smith said. Because Nitschke died in 1987, his estate is a defendant.

A 1960 memo established that AEC officials, including Stiller and Nitschke, and the plant's health physics and hygiene department were aware of the potential hazards in contaminated uranium, particularly that of highly radioactive neptunium, the suit alleges.

Released by DOE, the memo states "there are possibly 300 people at Paducah who should be checked out, but they hesitate to proceed to intensive study because of the union's use of this as an excuse for hazard pay."

Keller is living in Oak Ridge, Tenn., but the whereabouts of the 14 other defendants, "or whether they are alive, is presently unknown," the suit says.

The two previous lawsuits were filed by Washington lawyer Joe Egan and McMurry. The Egan suit seeks to include DOE against the former contractors. McMurry, who filed a broader lawsuit that seeks to be a class action, is among five lawyers to join Smith's suit. McMurry said his latest suit was ‘‘filed on behalf of the same workers and their families (as the first suit), however, it is against the federal government, the employees of the federal government who conspired with the contractors to expose these workers to harmful radiation without their consent or knowledge, which is a violation of the workers’ constitutional rights.’’

Egan's suit is pending a decision, expected later this year, by the government whether to join the action.

"I'm sure the court will consider consolidation, and I don't think this will add to the burden of the court," Smith said. "All these defendants are already in the other classes. This is a subclass that targets specific violations."

Richardson’s spokeswoman declined to specifically comment on the suits.

‘‘We have not yet been served with the lawsuits that were filed today, but they in no way affect the department’s commitment to follow through on working to get compensation for sick nuclear workers and continuing the investigations that will shed light on what happened many years ago at Energy Department sites across the country,’’ she said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)