Friday, Feb. 25, 2000 | 10:33 a.m.
U.S. District Judge Philip Pro released on Thursday the sealed transcript of a hearing over workers' claims they were harmed at a secret U.S. Air Force site known as Area 51.
But the judge released the transcript with all classified information blacked out.
Lawyers for five current and former workers and two widows, whose husbands allegedly died from exposure to toxic fumes at the base, have been trying to learn whether hazardous substances existed there and how they have been handled since 1994.
Jonathan Turley, the workers' attorney, said he expects to appeal the latest ruling.
KLAS Channel 8 had intervened to open the June 1995 hearing record. Pro ordered the Justice Department and the Air Force to review the sealed transcript on Dec. 30 and deliver it to the court by Jan. 31 with any top secret material removed.
The Air Force had argued during two separate suits brought by the former workers that the nature of operations at Area 51, also known as Groom Lake, was a matter of national security. President Clinton has upheld the secrecy of the base since 1995.
Area 51 is located about 100 miles north of Las Vegas.
Former employees such as sheet metal worker Robert Frost, whose widow, Helen Frost, pursued the suit, charged that they were exposed to toxic materials burned in open pits at the base, accusing the Air Force and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of failing to uphold national environmental laws.
Pro dismissed the EPA suit in 1994 and the Air Force suit in 1996. Turley of Washington, D.C., has filed numerous appeals on behalf of the workers.
Turley could not be reached for comment late Thursday, but he had said earlier that if Pro removed classified material from the teleconference transcript, he would appeal.
Pro had sealed stacks of documents relating to the case about Area 51, ruling in favor of the Air Force. He even sealed an Air Force security manual for the base, although it was available on the Internet.
Turley said he feared that the sealed documents he had gathered could be used for criminal or civil charges against individual workers. Most of the workers were identified as John Does for fear of losing their jobs.
At the government's request, the 1995 hearing was sealed to avoid embarrassment in the facts of the case, "including that the government lied to the public at the hearing," Turley claimed.
Results of a federal inspection of the top secret Area 51, where cutting-edge military craft such as the U-2 spy plane and the stealth fighter once flew, had been sealed by Pro earlier and upheld on appeal.
Turley had appealed the lawsuit filed by five former or current workers at the facility, including widow Stella Kasza, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court turned away that appeal in November 1998.
In Thursday's ruling, Pro did award $200,428 in attorneys' fees in the Kasza case, but granted nothing to Turley and his legal team for Frost.