The Justice Department again delays joining the whistle-blower suit on Lockheed Martin's running the Paducah plant.
By Bill Bartleman firstname.lastname@example.org
The suit claims Lockheed received hundreds of millions of dollars in operating bonuses because of information contained in false statements filed with the U.S. Department of Energy.
The false statements are alleged to have involved 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.
Lockheed, which operated the Paducah site for DOE from 1982 to 1992, has strongly denied the allegations.
The attorney who filed the suit agreed to the latest request for a delay, although he said earlier he wanted the decision to be made by Tuesday's deadline. If approved by U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley Jr., the deadline would be extended to Sept. 1.
"We agreed to go along because they convinced us substantial progress has been made in the investigation," said Joe Egan, the Washington-based attorney. He would not comment further except to say the progress was in "developing a very formidable united front" in pursuing the case.
"Although I know I've said it before, this time I really do think it is the last extension we'll agree to," Egan said. The request for the delay was filed late Friday in Louisville by Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Campbell.
Campbell also said substantial progress has been made in the investigation, but he would not elaborate.
The motion asking for the extension said government attorneys and investigators held additional meetings with Lockheed Martin. In the past, Campbell said those talks were centered on reaching an out-of-court settlement to avoid what would be lengthy and costly court action.
In his motion, Campbell said Lockheed provided additional information about the issues raised in the suit. "The government currently is analyzing ... (Lockheed's) disclosure, and reviewing extensive documents ... in order to reach a decision whether to intervene or not."
The Sun reported last year that Campbell had made a recommendation to his superiors in Washington that the federal government join the suit. However, a decision has been delayed because of opposition from the Department of Energy, which monitored Lockheed's activities when it managed the plant. The delays also have allowed for additional investigation and for talks to continue in an effort to settle the case.
On Friday, Egan said that some powerful members of Congress have taken an interest in the case and are putting pressure on DOE to agree to getting involved. He would not elaborate or identify the officials.
The Justice Department has spent more than $1 million and reviewed thousands of pages of documents to investigate the claims made in the suit that was filed in June 1999 by three workers and an environmental watchdog group, the Natural Resources Defense Council.
If the federal government joins as a plaintiff, it would be significant because with it comes almost unlimited resources to investigate and prosecute the suit. However, Egan said the suit will continue even without participation by the federal government.
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.