March 27, 2000
Workers describe conditions at Paducah plant
A former employee of the
Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant met with a midlevel
Atomic Energy Commission official 30 years ago to discuss conditions at the
facility, which is now the target of a $10 billion federal lawsuit, The
Paducah Sun reported.
Harold Hargan, 68, worked as a chemical operator at the facility from 1953 until 1992. In 1970, Hargan decided to meet with Carl Humphrey, then a middle manager with the AEC, and describe conditions at the plant, the newspaper reported in a copyright story published on Sunday.
He painted a harrowing picture, describing in detail incidents of drums leaking radioactive materials into ditches which eventually emptied into the Ohio River and the careless handling of a toxic degreasing chemical. He also said alcohol was abused by hourly workers and managers and added that he saw his foreman drinking whiskey with an operator inside a building called C-400, where uranium-enriching equipment was cleaned and where precious metals were extracted from nuclear weapons parts.
''Ignorance and apathy were rampant,'' said Hargan. ''Some people just didn't give a damn. When you mix alcohol with that, you've got a hell of a problem.''
Hargan said he once noticed a blue haze coming from a 55-gallon drum that was supposed to contain uranium oxide. He said he removed the lid and found that the haze was coming from dry ice to keep beer cold. The alcohol was hidden in a dusty, dirty building where equipment was used to pulverize material that contained toxins and radiation, Hargan said.
Besides drinking on the job, some workers were smuggling dismantled guns into the plant and using a substance called ''black magic'' in C-400 to clean and coat the firearms, Hargan said. Another practice was using gold, extracted from nuclear weapons circuitry in C-400, to plate the triggers of guns, he said.
Humphrey secretly sent investigators to the plant after meeting with Hargan and they ''validated some of Harold's allegations,'' Humphrey said. ''I was never knowledgeable about what happened, but when they visited out there, I know there were some management realignments.''
Hargan said that a few supervisors and managers suddenly were no longer at the plant after the visit by the AEC investigators.
In 1986, Hargan went to an attorney and gave a sworn statement about the allegations he made to the AEC official 16 years earlier. Last year, Hargan and Cairo, Ill., attorney Jim Flummer retrieved the statement as an avalanche of publicity mounted about past unsafe practices at the plant.
Flummer said he was shocked at the allegations and spent considerable time investigating them.
''Based on my interviews with Mr. Hargan and interviews with many other former employees, I'm of the opinion that Mr. Hargan is extremely credible,'' Flummer said.
Another worker, Don Copeland, corroborates some of Hargan's allegations. Copeland, a 33-year employee, managed one of the huge enrichment buildings during the latter part of his career. He said alcohol was abused at annual supervisors' parties, usually held at the Paducah Country Club.
''It went on so long until supervisors would get so drunk they wanted to fight. One finally pulled a knife on another one at one of the parties,'' Copeland said. ''They finally had to stop it because it got too rowdy. It was all paid for by the federal government.''
Copeland also said that forklift drivers often punctured drums filled with radioactive materials and workers were asked to clean up the mess with ordinary brooms, dustpans and waste cans.
Both Hargan and Copeland are named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging that past plant contractors poisoned workers and the public by putting profit ahead of safety.
The contractors, Union Carbide and Lockheed Martin corporations, deny the claims made in U.S. District Court in Paducah last year. Union Carbide ran the plant from its construction in 1952 until 1984. Lockheed Martin, formerly Martin Marietta, operated the facility from 1984 until last year.