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Suit Claims Toxic Dust Hurt Waste Workers

Mar 11, 2004 | AP

A former tunnel worker at the nation's nuclear waste dump in the Nevada desert sued government contractors Thursday, claiming the companies deliberately exposed employees to toxic dust at the Yucca Mountain project.

The civil lawsuit, filed in state court in Las Vegas, seeks class-action status and unspecified damages.

It claims the companies knew workers and visitors were exposed to dangerous levels of silica and other toxic dust during tunneling from 1992 to 1996.

``This lawsuit will expose an outrageous fraud against the work force and even the visitors at Yucca Mountain, one that's already killing people,'' said plaintiff Gene Griego, who worked as a tunnel supervisor at the Yucca Mountain site.

Griego, a nonsmoker who lives in Las Vegas, was diagnosed last year with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The lawsuit names Bechtel Corp. and its Nevada subsidiaries on the Yucca Mountain project; Bechtel SAIC Corp. of Delaware; Kiewit Group of Delaware; Parsons Brinckerhoff Construction of Delaware and subsidiaries; Morrison-Knudsen, now known as Washington Group International of Delaware; and TRW Automotive Holdings of Delaware and subsidiaries.

Bechtel SAIC spokeswoman Beatrice Reilly in Las Vegas declined comment, saying the companies had not yet seen the lawsuit. Requests for comment from Parsons Brinckerhoff, TRW, Kiewit and Washington Group were not immediately returned.

The Energy Department developed the Yucca site and gained Bush administration and congressional approval in 2002 to bury 77,000 tons of the nation's most radioactive waste at the site, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The agency plans to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of the year for a license to operate the waste site.

Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said Thursday that because the DOE was not named as a party to the lawsuit, it would not comment. But he added that the health and safety of Yucca Mountain workers ``has been and continues to be our first priority.''

Silicosis is a chronic, progressive and incurable lung disease that can develop years after long-term exposure to silica dust. It can be debilitating or even fatal.

In January, Yucca Mountain project managers began a lung disease screening program for current and former workers, saying up to 1,500 of them may have inhaled airborne silica.

Last month, the Energy Department began investigating whether documents were altered to misrepresent potentially hazardous dust levels at the site.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has called for a federal Labor Department investigation and has scheduled hearings on the silicosis issue that will begin Monday in Las Vegas.

``What happened to these workers is a tragedy and 100 percent preventable,'' Reid said in a statement Thursday. ``Someone is responsible for the fact that hundreds of workers may get sick and face death.

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