The department is conducting an investigation at the Paducah plant before deciding whether to join the whistleblower suit.
By Joe Walker email@example.com
The U.S. Department of Justice wants more time — through March 30 — to investigate whistleblower claims that past operators of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant poisoned workers and the public.
The request in U.S. District Court in Paducah Thursday seeks the fourth extension to complete the investigation and decide whether to join a lawsuit filed in June 1999. Previous extensions were sought in July and November 1999, and last April. Thursday marked the last deadline.
Bill Campbell, lead attorney for the probe and assistant to U.S. Attorney Steve Reed, said he requested more time to be thorough and fair.
"It is simply because of the amount of time involved, the sheer amount of money and the number of potential witnesses," he said. "Our main goal is not to rush to judgment."
Under federal law, the Justice Department must look into false-claims lawsuits against the government. Depending on its findings, the department will decide whether to join the suit as a plaintiff and share in any financial awards.
The lawsuit alleges that Union Carbide and Lockheed Martin, former operators of the plant, concealed environmental and worker-health problems in order to get performance bonuses. The defendants deny wrongdoing.
Damages are unspecified pending a determination of fees and bonuses paid. Plaintiff lawyer Joseph Egan said the total could run into the tens of millions of dollars.
Campbell said the government has interviewed several hundred people and has reviewed much of an estimated 30 million pages of records. He said he thinks the investigation is nearing the end.
"I've been involved in a lot of large (whistleblower) suits, and this one is actually proceeding much more quickly than many of the larger cases," Campbell said. "A lot of the information we're looking at covers almost the entire span of the plant's (48-year) life, and that's a long period."
The lawsuit alleges contaminants in spent nuclear fuel recycled at Paducah many years ago exposed workers to deadly levels of radiation. Campbell said the probe looks at the interstate paths nuclear materials took to get to Paducah and what health impact those substances had.
"We're going through a lot of the processes to make sure we understand them," he said, adding that investigators have examined documents in several other states.
Reed characterized the probe as ‘‘massive, in which we have expended an extreme amount of time and resources.’’ He said the government would spend whatever was required to verify or disprove the suit’s claims.
‘‘It may seem like it’s taken a long time, but it’s not unusual,’’ Reed said.
As part of the probe, the Justice Department dug up and sampled parts of a ditch that some former workers say was used to dump toxic, radioactive waste for many years. The ditch runs about two miles from inside the plant fence to the north section of federal land at Little Bayou Creek.
Some digging was done last year, but was halted when investigators weren’t finding evidence of any problems. The digging resumed after a former worker told investigators that contaminated drums were buried in a nearby landfill, designated for nonhazardous waste. Justice Department officials later said they found no evidence of the drums.
Cleanup of the so-called North-South Diversion Ditch was the topic of a public meeting Thursday night at Heath High School. A team of Department of Energy and state and federal environmental regulators wants citizen input before deciding what to do with the contamination.
A first draft, including a proposed cleanup plan, is expected to be published Monday and will be available at the DOE Environmental Information Center at Kevil. A final draft is slated for mid-February, followed by a 45-day public comment period. Work would begin in August, pending regulatory approval.
Greg Cook, spokesman for Bechtel Jacobs, DOE's lead environmental contractor, said the ditch mainly contains uranium, heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), although there are other contaminants. The team is leaning toward digging up contaminated sediment, especially in areas outside the fence, but that is one of various alternatives, he said.
The meeting was held to give people "a very, very early look at cleanup of the ditch," Cook said. "Obviously, one of the things we need to do is stop releasing contaminants into that ditch that flow outside the plant fence."
Members of the team are looking at more-permanent solutions following interim actions taken in the late 1990s. Earlier measures included systems to lessen levels of radionuclides and steam-plant fly ash in wastewater flowing into the ditch; dams and lift stations to control contaminated sediment; and warning signs.
Mark Donham, chairman of DOE's citizens advisory board, said his concerns include how much of the ditch would be excavated, the cost, schedule of cleanup and what would be done with the sediment, parts of which are highly contaminated. Donham said there are strict regulations on disposal of that type of waste.
"It seems like they're starting to move forward with some actual cleanup, which is good," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.