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Nuke plant's neighbors hope court gets answers

PADUCAH — Ronald Lamb lives in the shadow of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, where uranium is reprocessed and enriched for use as nuclear fuel. Like many neighbors suing over radiation, he blames pollution from the plant for leaving his land worthless.

"They just stole my inheritance," Lamb said. "I'll never believe nothing else."

As attorneys for Lamb and other landowners near the plant in far Western Kentucky seek answers about happened to their property and compensation for their claims, a federal judge has ordered former plant operators to find employees who can testify in a deposition about environmental practices at the plant from the 1950s through the 1980s.

U.S. Magistrate Robert Goebel ordered Union Carbide Corp. and Lockheed Martin this month to identify and make available people who could testify about the environmental practices at the plant. Goebel initially gave Union Carbide until July 7 to identify who would be deposed and the plaintiffs until Aug. 28 to complete the questioning.

At the request of the companies, Goebel rescinded that deadline and scheduled a conference Tuesday to reset the depositions. Goebel wrote that the process should be completed so it doesn't interfere with the trial, which begins Jan. 11 in Paducah.

Eddie Schmidt, an attorney for the landowners, said the depositions will force contractors to answer questions under oath about their waste-management practices in operating the plant.

"Given the enormous levels of documented on- and off-site contamination the plant operations produced, I suspect we will learn that the operators either had no waste-management policies or its unwritten policy and practice was to discard the operational waste wherever and however it could, even when it meant contaminating adjoining properties," Schmidt said.

Multiple phone and e-mail messages left with the press offices for Union Carbide and Lockheed Martin were not returned.

In a 12-yearlegal fight, Lamb and other neighbors claim that over decades, workers at the plant dumped waste that polluted groundwater, sickened neighbors and damaged their well water, gardens, crops, livestock and wildlife.

Jen Stutsman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Energy, said the Energy Department has spent $1.2 billion cleaning up Paducah and other Cold War-era nuclear sites. Under contracts signed to operate the plant, the U.S. Department of Energy pays for the defense of the two companies in lawsuits related to the operations of the facility.

"We are committed to completing the cleanup as quickly as possible, representing an investment of more than $10 billion," Stutsman said. "We are hopeful that a speedy and fair outcome can be reached for the community and everyone involved."

In court filings, lawyers for Union Carbide and Lockheed Martin have denied polluting the area. They also said it might be difficult to find employees to testify about the workings of the plant from as long ago as five decades.

Lamb accuses the Energy Department and the contractors of "denial and delay" in handling the suit, fighting residents for a dozen years over answers and compensation.

Ruby English, who lives near the plant, and others have had property assessments on their land that note the proximity to the plant and the likelihood of contamination in the ground and water.

"My ground is contaminated. My garden is contaminated," English said. "Would you buy my house knowing that?"