Paducah Workers Sue Firms
By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 4, 1999
Workers at the Department
of Energy's Paducah, Ky., uranium plant filed
a $10 billion lawsuit against three government contractors yesterday,
accusing them of deliberately exposing thousands of employees to hidden
radioactive and toxic hazards over nearly half a century.
The lawsuit represents
the first outcry by current and former plant
employees, who lined up outside a Paducah law office this week to take
part in the court action. It seeks one of the largest damage awards ever
claimed in a workers' class action and accuses former managers of
misleading workers about the presence of plutonium and other radioactive
material in the plant. The contaminants allegedly followed workers to their
homes and posed a threat to family members.
Targeted in the suit are
Lockheed Martin Corp. and Union Carbide
Corp., two private contractors that operated the plant under the
Department of Energy's supervision. It also names General Electric Co.,
producer of recycled uranium that was shipped to the Paducah Gaseous
Diffusion Plant in the 1950s and 1960s.
The recycled uranium contained
small amounts of plutonium and other
highly radioactive metals that the plant was not equipped to handle.
Eventually, the materials spread through factory buildings and into the
environment, including public lands near the site.
"After 47 years, the time
has come for accountability, compensation and
punishment," said William F. McMurry, one of two Kentucky lawyers
who filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Paducah.
"When all is said and
done, this case will reveal the egregious violations of
laws designed to protect workers, and, sadly, it will reveal the deliberate
intention to injure thousands of atomic workers," McMurry said.
An unrelated legal claim
three months ago helped focus national attention
on problems at the Paducah plant, which was built in 1952 to manufacture
enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, Navy submarines and nuclear
power plants. The earlier suit by three workers and an environmental
group was filed under the federal False Claims Act, which is intended to
expose fraud against the government.
The corporations named
as defendants in the new worker lawsuit had not
received copies of the complaint and declined to comment.
The $10 billion in compensation
sought includes $5 billion in punitive
damages. The sum is based on a class of at least 10,000 former and
current workers and their family members.
"People are scared and
rightfully so," said McMurry, a Louisville trial
lawyer. "These people are desperate for answers and nobody is giving
The suit alleges that
the corporations reaped unjust profits by failing to
properly monitor and protect workers from radioactive and chemical
hazards in the workplace. It also accuses the companies of committing
battery by exposing workers to "extremely and illegally high doses of
radiation, including plutonium."
Besides posing risks in
the workplace, the contaminants attached to
workers' skin and clothing and resulted in "increased risk of contracting
radiation-related diseases to the spouses and members of the employees'
households," the complaint states.
The past conduct of Paducah
contractors is also the focus of a full-scale
probe launched last month by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson following
an investigation by The Washington Post into conditions at the plant.
"I will hold all contractors,
past and present, responsible for their
Richardson said in announcing the probe Aug. 8.
Yesterday, Energy Department
investigators returned to Washington from
the plant after completing the first phase of a fact-finding mission. Senior
manager David Stadler said the 14 members of the team had collected soil
and water samples along with a "tremendous amount" of data in their effort
to determine whether current plant conditions pose hazards to workers
"This information will
help us determine what actually occurred and what
must be done to protect workers, the public and the environment," Stadler
said in a statement as the team prepared to leave Paducah. "We will
continue to do whatever is necessary to resolve the public and workers'
The investigation's second
phase will focus on conditions at the plant prior
to 1990, when the worst problems are said to have occurred. That effort
is expected to last several months.
The increased scrutiny
has brought a steady stream of problems to light.
Earlier this week, a plant contractor briefly suspended a construction
project after the Energy Department team found that workers were not
being properly trained or monitored for radiation exposure. The 25
employees had been working at the plant since May, constructing a
storage lot for 10-ton casks of depleted uranium, a source of gamma
radiation. Until Tuesday, workers had not worn radiation detection
badges or taken radiation classes.
Energy Department contractor
Bechtel Jacobs Co. attributed the lapse to
a faulty calculation, which caused officials to underestimate likely worker
radiation doses. The company said the problems have been corrected.
Also Tuesday, plant technicians
reported the discovery of radioactive
contamination on a surplus computer that was marked for release to local
schools or other nonprofit groups. Radiation readings were three times
higher than the plant's "action" level, the limit which requires immediate
steps to protect workers. "The radiation protection system worked
exactly as it was supposed to," and no contaminated equipment was
released to the public, said Elizabeth Stuckle, spokesman for U.S.