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WIPP employee sues over respiratory issues

In the first personal injury lawsuit to come to light since a fire and radiation leak hit a southeast New Mexico nuclear waste repository, a worker is suing the contractor in charge for alleged negligence and injuries resulting from smoke inhalation.

William Utter, a waste handler for contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership, filed the lawsuit in Santa Fe in May seeking unspecified compensation and punitive damages for a litany of injuries, including smoke and toxin inhalation, and mental and emotional distress.

His wife, Amada, and 10-year-old son are also party to the case.

Utter evacuated the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant salt mine along with 85 other workers on Feb. 5 after a salt haul truck caught fire some 2,150 feet below the surface. He was among the 13 workers treated for smoke inhalation and among the six sent to the hospital that day for further treatment.

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Attorney Justin Rodriguez said Utter has been making regular trips to Albuquerque and Denver to see respiratory specialists recommended to him by NWP’s insurance carrier due to the injury; the lawsuit does not specify the diagnosis. Utter has been receiving workers’ compensation disability payments since the summer, Rodriguez said.

The business registrations of NWP along with parent URS Energy and Construction Inc., also named in the lawsuit, are in Santa Fe.

NWP spokesman Donavan Mager said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

Citing “employee privacy issues,” Mager also declined to say how many workers, if any, were receiving disability payments in connection with either the fire or radiation leak.

In a court document, NWP attorneys refuted Utter’s claims, saying the “defendants do not believe that the complaint states a legally sufficient cause of action.”

The Department of Energy and NWP have maintained since the beginning that no workers were seriously injured in either of the February incidents. On a WIPP website, the DOE says “one employee continues to be treated for smoke inhalation as a result of the fire.”

In addition to the workers treated for smoke inhalation following the fire, 22 workers tested positive for radiation contamination after the Feb. 14 radiation leak at levels deemed unharmful to health.

The lawsuit draws heavily on a March accident investigation report on the fire that outlines in detail dozens of problems in safety and maintenance at the repository – deficiencies that included an ineffective fire suppression system on the truck, inoperable mine phones and ineffective emergency response training.

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The report concluded the accident could have been prevented.

WIPP employs more than 1,000 workers, including both contractor and DOE employees. NWP employees are not permitted to speak to the news media.

Utter has worked for NWP for eight years and is a member of the Carlsbad chapter of the United Steelworkers union.

He declined to be interviewed by the Journal but shared through his attorney a recorded interview with a doctor in which he details the health issues he has faced since escaping the mine fire. Rodriguez said the video was prepared in conjunction with the lawsuit.

Choking back a constant, persistent cough, Utter’s voice is hoarse as he answers questions asked by a person off-camera.

“I get tired,” he said. “I start coughing real hard. I start vomiting. … It’s just like this all the time.”

Hearings have not yet been scheduled in the case.

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