An attorney for whistle-blowers that filed a lawsuit against Lockheed Martin sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy seeking a meeting.
By Bill Bartleman email@example.com
Even so, attorney Charles J. Cooper claims that the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the compound and monitored Lockheed's management practices, is reluctant to join the suit seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in refunds to the federal government.
Cooper has sent a letter to DOE's top attorney, Lee S. Liberman Otis, asking for a meeting to discuss the case. "We continue to believe — as do the justice department, the U.S. attorney's office in Kentucky and the Environmental Protection Agency — that the case has strong merit ...," Cooper said. "We hope DOE will join the Justice Department and the EPA in supporting the continued prosecution of our claims."
The letter was sent as the U.S. Attorney's office in Louisville has asked a judge to give the federal government 60 more days to decide whether it wants to join as a plaintiff in the suit. It is the 10th extension sought by the U.S. attorney's office since the suit was filed in June 1999.
It appears this could be the last request for an extension. The motion seeking the extension states that attorneys for the whistle-blowers will "oppose any further motions for extension of time after this request." If approved, the deadline will be extended from Friday to July 16.
Federal involvement is significant because with it comes almost unlimited resources to investigate and prosecute with the suit. Cooper and Joe Egan, another attorney representing the plant workers, said they will pursue the case even if the federal government decides not to join.
Egan said the case was strengthened by evidence uncovered by federal investigators in the past three years.
At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars paid as bonuses to Lockheed and its predecessor companies for meeting environmental standards that the suit claims were not met while the company operated the plant for DOE from 1982 to ’92.
The suit claims Lockheed made false statements to DOE concerning illegal storage and disposal of radioactive waste, unlawful exposure of workers to lethal contaminants and contamination of groundwater and soil with plutonium, neptunium and other radioactive materials.
Revelations made in the suit gained nationwide attention and prompted then-DOE Secretary Bill Richardson to visit Paducah and admit that some management practices at the plant resulted in workers' being exposed to hazardous materials and widespread pollution.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Campbell would not comment on Cooper's letter to DOE.
Campbell said a number of meetings have been held with Lockheed to discuss the case and to try to settle the claims in the suit. He said more meetings are scheduled to try to settle the case without a trial, which would be costly for both sides. He declined to characterize the tone of the discussions and would not predict whether a settlement will be reached by July 16.
In the motion seeking the latest extension, Campbell said attorneys for both sides believe additional discussions would be useful.
Lockheed has strongly denied wrongdoing and has denied that it has tried negotiating with the Justice Department to settle the case. A Lockheed spokesman said his company's meetings have been to answer questions and to cooperate fully with the investigation.
Those who filed the suit — plant workers Charles Deuschele, Garland Jenkins and Ronald Fowler; the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental watchdog group; and Thomas Cochran, nuclear program director for the council — could receive up to 25 percent of any amount refunded to the federal government.
In the letter to DOE, Cooper said follow-up investigations and revelations by DOE indicate that environmental conditions at the Paducah plant are worse than alleged in the original complaint.
He gave as examples "the widespread burial of hundreds of tons of classified nuclear weapons parts, the discovery of tritium contamination on site and recently the discovery that even DOE's new sanitary landfill is contaminated with plutonium, neptunium and technetium."
Campbell said he made a recommendation last fall to his superiors in Washington regarding whether the government should become involved. He would not say what he recommended but said he has submitted additional information based on new interviews and documents reviewed in recent months.
The Sun reported last fall that Campbell had recommended that the government join in the suit but that DOE was opposing the recommendation. The recommendation was pending in the office of Attorney General John Ashcroft.