12. Cleaning Up

Information acquired from HowStuffWorks

In 1980, the government authorized a program to remove irradiated soil from around Groom Lake. Satellite photos confirm that crews removed massive amounts of dirt from the area. Surrounding cities reported increases in cancer rates and many have sued the government (with varying degrees of success), claiming the tests caused them to get sick.

Another hazard at Area 51 involved the disposal of classified technology and vehicles. In the 1980s, crews at Area 51 dug large, open pits and dumped toxic materials into them. They burned the materials using jet fuel and suffered exposure to chemicals and fumes. According to a lawsuit filed against several government officials, the workers requested safety equipment such as breathing masks, but were denied due to budgetary concerns. When they asked if they might bring their own equipment, their superiors told them that for security reasons they could not bring outside equipment into the base. Several civilian employees became sick from the exposure — two eventually died. Helen Frost, the widow of Area 51 employee Robert Frost, and several Groom Lake employees worked with attorney Jonathan Turley to file the lawsuit.

One interesting item from the lawsuit that has since caused a big stir in Area 51 circles is the submission of an unclassified security manual into evidence. Turley argued that the manual not only proved the base existed, it also proved the government was aware of the dangers of handling hazardous waste and acted with negligence toward the employees at Area 51. The government retroactively classified the security manual, and Judge Philip Pro didn’t allow it as evidence. You can still find the manual on the Internet. Some claim the manual to be a fake, though if this is the case it raises a question — why would the government declare a fake document to be classified information?

President Clinton signed an Executive Order exempting Area 51 from environmental regulation in September, 1995. This order is the most formal acknowledgement of the existence of Area 51 by the government. The order referred to Area 51 as “the Air Force’s operating location near Groom Lake, Nevada.” Judge Pro eventually dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that investigation into the claims constituted a breach of national security. Turley argued that this set a dangerous precedent in that the government could now hide crimes through the excuse of national security. The policy relieves the government of accountability to the people it represents. Further litigation may follow, particularly now that a similar unclassified safety manual has been pulled from a Web site for Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. The document clearly indicates the dangers of inhaling hazardous fumes, instructing emergency responders to use extreme caution and use proper safety equipment. The Web site has since removed the document with the explanation that the person who posted it did so in error. Some worry that emergency responders will now lack vital information when they go into dangerous situations.

Today, Area 51 allows the EPA to inspect the facility to ensure it meets environmental requirements. However, all reports are classified and can’t be published. Many argue that without publication of the results, the facility remains unaccountable. Clinton’s Executive Order permits the reports to remain sealed, despite the fact that the law requires all such reports be made available to the public. The President must renew the order each year, and so far that has been the case.

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