Thousands may join DOE
By Joe Walker
Sun Business Editor
As many as 10,000 current
and former Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant
employees and their families may be eligible to join a $10 billion federal
lawsuit alleging that former contractors poisoned the work force with
plutonium and other contamination, say attorneys who filed the action.
"It's about compensating
these workers," said lawyer Bill McMurry of
Louisville, formerly of Paducah. "It's about accountability, compensation and
Filed Friday before U.S.
District Judge Edward H. Johnstone in Paducah, the
suit seeks $5 billion in compensatory damages, $5 billion in punitive damages
and the recovery of "hundreds of millions of dollars" in unjust profits.
Defendants are former
plant contractors Union Carbide Corp. and Lockheed
Martin as well as General Electric Co., which allegedly shipped reactor fuel
contaminated with plutonium to the Paducah plant for reprocessing from 1952,
when the plant opened, until 1965.
The suit names 14 plaintiffs,
including three - Ronald Fowler, Garland (Bud)
Jenkins and Charles Deuschle - who in June filed a "whistleblower's" (False
Claims Act) suit against Lockheed Martin in federal court in Paducah. Fowler
and Deuschle are employees, and Jenkins is retired from the plant.
Joseph Egan, a Washington
attorney and nuclear physicist who filed the
whistleblower's suit, is a plaintiffs' attorney in the new lawsuit.
Unlike the whistleblower's
action, which asks for Justice Department
intervention, the new complaint seeks damages directly from the former
contractors alleging they made money at the expense of workers' exposure. The
whistleblower's suit exempts Union Carbide because of a statute of
Mark Bryant of Paducah,
another plaintiffs' attorney, said the new suit
resulted from mounting phone calls to his office after word of the
whistleblower's suit surfaced in July. The action is based on resulting facts
that support the earlier suit, he said.
"We expect to get phone
calls from a lot of people wanting to be plaintiffs,"
Fowler's wife, Sandra;
Jenkins' wife, Alice; and Deuschle's wife, Kay - a
plant employee - also are plaintiffs.
Other plaintiffs are current
or former plant workers Al Rainer, William
Cossler Jr., Charles Ramsey and David Sacharnoski; Rainer's daughter, Chyanne
Rainer Stevens, and Sylvia Mathis, Shanda Mathis and Sybil Mathis. Sylvia
Mathis is the widow of H.C. "Ladd" Mathis Jr., a longtime plant employee and
civic leader who died last year of lung cancer. Shanda and Sybil Mathis are
"We're not trying to draw
connections between anyone's death and his work out
there," McMurry said. "Our task is to prove that these workers have been
injured by their exposure to high levels of radiation."
The suit came as the U.S.
Department of Energy, which owns the plant,
announced the completion of its investigation into claims surrounding the
whistleblower's suit. DOE spokesman Steve Wyatt declined comment on the new
complaint, as did Lockheed Martin spokesman Jim Fetig.
"We have not seen the
lawsuit and therefore are unable to comment," Fetig
have 20 days to respond. McMurry said the plaintiffs'
team wants to send notices to all current and former workers and their
families asking them if they wish to join the suit. Johnstone must rule on
that motion and set a time limit for responses, he said.
"A class action is determined
by the numbers, but there is not any magic
number," McMurry said. "It just has to be too numerous to handle each
person's claim individually."
Bryant said the team will
seek the involvement of the U.S. Department of
Justice and the plant's main union, Paper, Allied-Chemical and Energy Workers
International (PACE). Rainer, Cossler and Ramsey are union members.
Bryant said he would contact
PACE international officials next week to ask
for their support.
"The defendants can certainly
afford to pay it if we can get a judgment
against them," Bryant said. "It'll take years. This is not something that's
going to happen tomorrow, but we're going to work with the union to try to
get them on board."
David Fuller, president
of PACE Local 3-550, said Bryant had not contacted
"Whether this lawsuit
will become a part of any official response my union
makes, I don't know," Fuller said. "While I'm not ruling it (involvement in
the suit) out, I certainly have no knowledge and have not been a party to any
of this and hold out the option for a completely different course of action.
It depends on what the international decides after a thorough review."
Among the allegations:
--General Electric's Hanford
facility shipped thousands of tons of highly
contaminated uranium feedstocks to the Paducah plant, operated by Union
Carbide from 1952 to '84, and Martin Marietta and its successor, Lockheed
Martin, from 1984 to last spring. The reactor fuel had up to 700 times as
much technetium and 450 times as much plutonium and neptunium than does the
uranium that is typically processed. All three substances were contaminants
and far more radioactive than uranium, enriched at Paducah for use in nuclear
--The contaminants led
to "widespread releases" to the plant and its
surroundings, and the releases continue. Workers had "a continuous series of
ingestions and exposures" - in excess of federal limits - from routine
operations over many years.
--Workers deserve compensation
not only for physical injury but the fear of
contracting radiation-related diseases and mounting medical expenses.
--Contractors hid and
misrepresented the facts, knowing that employees would
otherwise refuse to work and file claims. The fraud led to "unjust
enrichment" of contractors through profits, bonuses and incentives earned by
not using proper safety precautions.
McMurry said the suit
is based on Kentucky law that allows people to recover
emotional damages for radiation exposures that are especially bad. The law
stemmed from an unrelated court case involving a pregnant woman injured by
medical X-rays, he said.
"That's important, given
what we believe to be one of the most egregious
violations of health physics laws ever," McMurry said of alleged plant
Kentucky's workers' compensation
laws exempt employers from paying claims to
workers injured unintentionally and in the normal course of business. McMurry
said the federal suit alleges "outrageous conduct," which, if proved, would
mean the injuries were deliberate and compensatory.