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Workers appeal Area 51 ruling

September 11, 1996
Las Vegas Sun

Former workers at a secret military base in Southern Nevada have filed emergency requests in federal appeals court to halt an effort by the government to reveal their names.

The requests were filed Tuesday and Wednesday through their attorneys, George Washington University Professor Jonathan Turley and co-counsel Joan Manley.

The lawyers asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to restrain U.S. District Court Judge Philip Pro in Las Vegas from allowing the Justice Department to interview the workers.

The latest development in the two-year legal battle over alleged environmental crimes committed at Area 51, also known as Groom Lake, came after attorney James Morgulec of the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section asked Pro to approve interviews of the base workers.

"They were, unless otherwise informed, to be considered witnesses only," Morgulec wrote in papers filed Aug. 8.

At least two workers have died and other workers have reported illnesses, including a rare, painful skin disease linked to toxic fumes from burning hazardous wastes.

Turley said the government wants to prosecute his clients for allegedly committing environmental crimes while working at Area 51. The workers asked for a criminal investigation more than two years ago before filing the suits, he noted.

"We will do whatever is necessary to protect these workers and hold the government accountable for these crimes," Turley said.

There are nine federal laws that detail the criminal penalties a person or company can receive for harming the environment. Punishments range from fines to prison time.

Although the alleged burning of toxic chemicals, claimed in the workers' two lawsuits, occurred on federal property, and ostensibly, under government supervision, the United States cannot be sued, said Environmental Protection Agency Special-Agent-in-Charge David Wilma of San Francisco.

While Wilma would not address the ongoing Area 51 investigation, he explained that environmental crime cases involve elements of fraud and usually seek to punish the "highest-level responsible person." That means managers, owners, or in the Area 51 case, military contractors.

Turley's clients were craftsmen. They volunteered to cooperate with a criminal investigation before the civil lawsuits were filed. They were "threatened with criminal and civil reprisals," Turley said.

The lawyer also noted the government's unwillingness to grant complete immunity for all the environmental crimes the workers may have committed and for all unauthorized disclosures of classified information except those made to foreign spies.

Turley blocked past attempts by investigators to talk with former workers, based on a court order banning them from contacting his clients.

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