Friday, Nov. 8, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily overruled a Las Vegas federal judge who allowed federal agents to question former Area 51 workers about alleged illegal burning of hazardous waste.
The higher court decision, made Thursday, may throw a roadblock in the Justice Department's effort to wrap up its investigation into allegations that environmental crimes were committed at the once-secret military base 125 miles north of Las Vegas.
The 9th Circuit ruled that agents cannot ask Area 51 employees about their co-workers who sued the federal government over the alleged burning, nor can the agents ask if the employees are represented by a lawyer.
The Justice Department had agreed to hold off on the questions until the appellate court made a decision.
The former workers sought the court's intervention out of fear that the government was targeting them through a criminal investigation because they had gone public with the alleged unlawful burning of hazardous waste.
Specifically, they argued that if investigators learned that they were represented by attorney Jonathan Turley, they would then deduce that they were a plaintiff in the civil suit.
The 9th Circuit will review its decision, pending a full appeal.
The workers, whose names are protected by a civil court order, alleged that throughout the 1980s the Air Force regularly filled 55-gallon drums with toxic waste and dumped them in trenches the size of football fields. The drums were covered with combustible material, doused with jet fuel and set ablaze, the workers allege.
It is a crime to burn hazardous waste in open trenches. However, the statute of limitations has expired on any burning that may have occurred, meaning those responsible cannot be prosecuted.
The base, also known as Groom Lake, housed the stealth fighter during its top-secret tests.