Lawyers for whistle-blowers at the gaseous diffusion plant predict a resolution. Meanwhile, a judge grants the Justice Department another extension.
By Bill Bartleman email@example.com
The lead attorney for plaintiffs also predicted resolution by the end of the year.
A federal judge on Monday gave the U.S. Department of Justice until May 17 to decide if the federal government should become a plaintiff in the suit, filed in June 1999 by three plant workers and an environmental watchdog group. Justice lawyers have now been granted nine three-month extensions to decide whether to enter the suit.
At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars paid as bonuses to Lockheed and companies that operated the plant earlier, including Martin Marietta, for meeting environmental standards that the suit claims were not met. Plaintiffs stand to gain up to 25 percent of any amount refunded to the U.S. Department of Energy, which paid Lockheed to run the plant from 1982-92.
"I would love for this case to be resolved (without a trial) and that is what we are working toward," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Campbell, lead government investigator. "If we didn't think there was a chance of that happening, we wouldn't continue to ask for extensions."
Attorneys for Lockheed and Justice toured the plant in recent weeks, and Campbell anticipates "further discussions based upon information obtained during the tour." He termed such discussions useful in resolving the case. "I can't comment on the substance of our discussions, but if we felt like they weren't being productive, we would pursue other avenues," he said.
Joe Egan, the Washington, D.C., attorney who filed the suit, said he agreed to go along with Campbell's request for another delay because talks have been productive. "I am hopeful this matter can conclude in this calendar year," Egan said.
At issue are allegations that Lockheed filed false environmental reports when it operated the Paducah plant for the Department of Energy. The suit claims the company was awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in operating bonuses for meeting certain environmental milestones that the suit claims were not met.
A spokesman for Lockheed disputes the allegations. "We are continuing to cooperate with the Department of Justice as we have been for more than three years," said James Fetig, Lockheed's director of media relations. "There have been no settlement discussions with them. We stand by our belief that ... (those who filed the suit) have no merit to their claim."
He said the nature of discussions with government investigators had been to answer questions and provide information to help in their investigation.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Paducah by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental watchdog in Washington, D.C.; Thomas Cochran, nuclear program director for the council; and Paducah plant workers Charles Deuschele, Garland Jenkins and Ronald Fowler.