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Documents may help former Area 51 officer land settlement in toxic-exposure case

Documents that the Labor Department failed to release to a former Area 51 security officer years ago in his toxic-exposure case have been obtained by his advocate, setting the stage for a showdown in a federal appeals court.

Fred Dunham, 64, of Las Vegas stands to receive up to $250,000 from an Energy Department employees compensation program if he prevails after his advocate, Donna Hand, includes him in a case in the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.

Dunham said he had requested records pertaining to his case from the Labor Department “on three separate occasions with return-receipt requests that shows they have received my request.”

“I have never received this file, ever,” he said as he flipped through a green folder of documents at his home Thursday.

“There’s a lot of records in here that I’ve never seen before. This is amazing.”

On Friday, the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation responded to a Las Vegas Review-Journal request for comment on why the department continues to deny Dunham’s claim, given that records show he worked at a “forward area” of what was then called the Nevada Test Site. That area has since been transferred to the Defense Department. And the Energy Department changed the test site’s name in 2010 to the Nevada National Security Site.

“The evidence of record confirms that he worked for EG&G Special Projects at the Nevada Test Site. However, the evidence does not establish the EG&G Special Projects was a DOE contractor at Area 51,” according to the Labor Department’s email response. “DOE confirmed that EG&G Special Projects was not a DOE contractor, and the Director’s Order explains why Mr. Dunham’s case was denied and not reopened” in January.

Hand, however, is not convinced.

She seeks a legal determination from the court that Dunham and other former Area 51 workers were employed by an Energy Department contractor or subcontractor when they were exposed to toxic substances on DOE property that was then part of the Nevada Test Site but was used by the Defense Department under a memorandum of understanding.

Hand said recently that the Labor Department’s position is based not on material fact but on the opinion of someone who keeps an exposure archive for the National Atomic Testing Museum.

Hand added that her research has turned up a computer disk that lists EG&G Special Projects among DOE subcontractors.

The more research Hand conducted “the more it is clear the Department of Labor’s division of Energy as well as DOE did not do their due diligence.”

Hand, of Tampa, Fla., submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in December for Labor Department documents that would rebut her position.

“They only have a few more days, and I’ll be going into federal court to request that the Freedom of Information Act be upheld and for them to show me the documentation that contradicts the documentation that I’ve found,” she said Feb. 12 on a trip to Las Vegas.

Hand found a State Industrial Insurance System claim from 1990, saying that Dunham developed chest pains, severe coughing and passed out twice after practicing for a half-mile run when he worked in a “forward area” of the Nevada Test Site for EG&G Special Projects.

He suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that he blames on inhaling dioxin-laced fumes when he monitored open-pit burning of radar-evading stealth coatings and toxic scraps. Those materials were routinely hauled to Area 51 during the 1980s for disposal by aerospace contractors from Burbank, Calif. Two tractor-trailer rigs would deliver 30 to 50 drums of stealth-coating waste and scraps every week.

“They did a burn every Wednesday,” Dunham said, recalling how he stood guard at the pits while 100 gallons of diesel fuel were poured on the 55-gallon drums and a fireman ignited them with a flare.

“It would burn all night, and in the morning there was an inverted layer of dark, brown smoke hanging over this pristine valley in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “When I’d come home, my wife would say, ‘How come my uniform stinks so bad?'”

He said the open-pit burning defied environmental laws. The materials should have been burned in incinerators in Southern California. But the aerospace companies would have had to declare the ingredients so that proper temperatures could be set to ensure toxic fumes wouldn’t float over Los Angeles when the incinerators were vented.

“I can’t believe why my claim was denied,” Dunham said.

It’s clear to him that he and others who worked at Area 51, at the northeast corner of the Nevada Test Site, 90 miles north of Las Vegas, should be covered by the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.

“They chose to ignore their own list of DOE contractors,” Dunham said Friday. “I cannot understand why (they) would act in a manner which is counter to the very reason why they have a job.”

— Contact Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2

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