Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2000 | 10:08 a.m.
President Clinton on Tuesday again declared the top-secret Air Force base known as Area 51 off limits to national, state or local environmental laws.
Clinton has sent a letter to Congress each year exempting Area 51 from all environmental restrictions after Washington, D.C., attorney Jonathan Turley sued the Air Force and the Environmental Protection Agency over pollution concerns and claimed that five workers were poisoned at the base.
When asked if the president's report to Congress on Tuesday was routine, an administration official said, "I wouldn't call it routine at all."
The lawsuit was filed after five former or current workers at the facility complained of exposure to toxins and illegal acts by government workers at the site, about 95 miles north of Las Vegas. The workers were identified in court papers as "five John Does" and Helen Frost and Stella Kasza -- the widows of two men who worked there.
U.S. District Court Judge Philip Pro dismissed the suit against the Air Force and partially dismissed the case against the EPA in 1997. The U.S. Supreme Court denied both appeals in 1998, but Turley then turned to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The appeals court said that, because of national security concerns, lawyers for workers or widows are not entitled to learn what hazardous substances exist at Area 51 or how they are handled.
"We know crimes were committed at Area 51," Turley said. "We had witnesses who wanted to tell the court and give names and dates of special meetings where criminal acts were discussed."
Turley has not given up. He believes that some day a president will open Area 51's secret files.
"Eventually some president will be uncomfortable with Area 51 and open the records," he said, noting that on the same day Clinton issued his first order to shield the base under a national security blanket, he apologized for the conduct of former presidents who allowed human radiation experiments in the United States.
In the EPA case, Turley won an opinion from the appeals court to have Pro take another look at whether he should unseal a transcript discussing Area 51 and a security guidebook that was available on the Internet.
Pro could have released part or all of the transcript by Tuesday but was busy conducting a trial, his secretary said.
If Pro does not release the transcript in a reasonable time, Turley said he will appeal again.
For Grace Potorti of the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability based in Reno, the president's declaration means business as usual.
"For me, it's just an agreement that keeps business as usual out there, and that business is polluting," she said.
RAMA has challenged military use of rural lands in Nevada and around the West and filed suit against the Air Force last week for creating too much noise in training flights.
The whole issue of toxic pollution at Area 51 has been controversial for years.
"At some time in the future, the American public will have to pay to clean it up," Potorti said.