A former tunnel worker at the nation's nuclear waste dump in the Nevada desert filed suit Thursday against Energy Department contractors, 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, erionite, and other toxic dusts 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, a former a Los Alamos, N.M., national laboratory employee 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.
"We hope to see these innocent people compensated, and the perpetrators brought to justice," he said in a statement.
The lawsuit names Bechtel Corp. and Nevada subsidiaries on the Yucca Mountain project; Bechtel SAIC Corp. of Delaware; the Kiewit Group of Delaware; Parsons Brinckerhoff Construction of Delaware and subsidiaries; Morrison-Knudson, now known as Washington Group International of Delaware; and TRW Automotive Holdings of Delaware and subsidiaries. Each has an office in Nevada.
The Energy Department developed the Yucca site for the federal government 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 repository.
Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said Thursday that because the DOE was not named as a party to the lawsuit, it would not comment.
Joseph Egan, a McLean, Va.-based lawyer heading the case, also represents Nevada in its fight to stop the Yucca Mountain project in federal courts.
He called the toxic dust issue "a small example of a pattern of conduct that pervades the entire Yucca Mountain project."
The 27-page complaint filed in Clark County District Court alleges the companies "intentionally and fraudulently concealed the truth about the hazards at Yucca Mountain" and "placed a higher priority on ... deadlines than they did on human safety and health."
"What we're seeing coming out of it now is junk science and sick workers," Egan said Thursday.
Egan said the three law firms handling the case expect to add more plaintiffs, including one who has contracted silicosis.
Mark Hutton, a Wichita, Kan., lawyer also involved in the case, said the companies knew about the risks from toxic dust, but failed to protect tunnel workers and visitors.
"The fact it was fraudulently concealed from everyone who ever set foot inside the mountain makes it all the more shocking," he said.
In January, Yucca Mountain project managers began a lung disease screening program for current and former workers, saying up to 1,500 current and former Yucca Mountain site workers may have inhaled airborne silica at Yucca Mountain.
Last month, the Energy Department started an investigation of whether notes were altered to misrepresent potentially hazardous dust levels at the site.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has called for a federal Labor Department investigation into safety practices at Yucca Mountain, and has scheduled hearings of the silicosis issue to begin Monday in Las Vegas.