Lawsuits Allege Environmental Crimes at Secret Air Base Former Employees Claim the US Military Illegally Burned Hazardous Wastes at a Nevada Desert Site; a Court Battle Erupts over Federal Secrecy Privileges

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At a restricted Air Force bombing range north of Las Vegas, there's a military test site with a mission so sensitive that for years the Pentagon would not admit the place even existed. Built on a barren, chalky lake bed, the secluded air strip is known to military observers as Paradise Ranch or Dreamland because it is believed to have launched the Air Force's most sophisticated cold-war aircraft - from supersonic spy planes to the radar-evading stealth fighter. Although Dreamland's runways, radar stations, and hangars can be seen from a hilltop outside the restricted range near Groom Lake, the site is mysteriously absent from even the most detailed air-defense maps. Signs outside the base warn that photography is prohibited and trespassers are warned that "use of deadly force {is} authorized." But now two lawsuits, filed in federal court in Nevada, threaten to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding this desert installation. The suits allege that the US military used the secrecy cloaking Dreamland's top-flight weaponry to commit and cover up environmental crimes. Four former workers, along with the widows of two others, allege the Air Force burned toxic waste at the site in violation of the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Congress's first major toxic-waste management bill. "The military and its contractors would dig large open pits, then fill the trenches with 55-gallon drums, which were full of paints, solvents, and other chemicals," says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who represents the workers. "The drums would then be covered with jet fuel and lighted with a flare or torch." The workers have sued the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, and the Air Force for allowing the burning to continue. (The suits allege that the burning has taken place, on and off, for the past 10 years.) They have also sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to inspect and monitor waste disposal at the facility, as required by RCRA. According to the lawsuits, fumes from burning chemicals caused a variety of skin disorders among the workers. Helen Frost's husband was exposed to the chemicals and later died. "When they go to work up there, they take a nondisclosure oath so they could not talk about work," Mrs. Frost says. "And if they did, they were threatened with Leavenworth {federal prison}. So the first problem was that when we went to the doctor, we couldn't tell him where he, my husband, worked or what what he might have been exposed to." Stuck in pretrial dispute But whether or not Mr. Frost, or other workers, became ill as a result of the alleged burning is a question the court is still far from answering. For the last seven months, the litigation has been stuck in a bitter pretrial dispute over whether the trial should be dismissed because information brought out in court might jeopardize national security. To this end, the Air Force has invoked the military and state secrets privilege, a rarely used tenet of common law that allows the executive branch to withhold information if disclosure might jeopardize American soldiers or diplomatic relations. In this case, the Air Force has refused to release even the most basic information about the base: its name, and whether or not jet fuel or car batteries were used at the base, for example. The agency has also asked Federal Judge Phillip Pro to throw both cases out of court. In short, Air Force lawyers argue that because national security precludes the military from divulging any more details, the plaintiffs will not have enough evidence to go to trial. To back this claim, Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall has submitted two affidavits to the court - one public and one for the judge's eyes only - claiming that any environmental review of the facility entered into the record could educate foreign powers about US military technology. …

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