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WIPP waste handler sues operators for negligence via Current-Argus News

CARLSBAD >> An employee at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is suing current and past operators of the federal nuclear waste disposal facility.

William Utter claims he has experienced severe physical injuries as a result of smoke inhalation from the February fire, including pain and suffering, emotional distress, inability to sleep or sleep healthily, and a loss of earning capacity.

Utter filed a personal injury civil suit in Santa Fe District Court in May alleging either negligence or willful or intentional harm on the part of Nuclear Waste Partnership, Southwest Safety Specialists, Washington TRU Solutions and URS Energy and Construction. WTS managed operations at WIPP from 2002 to October 1, 2012 before NWP took over the Department of Energy contract.

Utter worked as a waste handler for NWP and was underground on the morning of Feb. 5 when a fire ignited between the engine and dump sections of a truck used to haul salt in WIPP’s northern mine. Utter was one of 86 workers who were forced to evacuate to the surface and one of 13 who were taken to Carlsbad Medical Center to be treated for smoke inhalation.

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The defendants’ acts “created foreseeably dangerous conditions which caused or contributed to Plaintiff William Utter’s injuries and damages,” stated the complaint filed by attorney Justin Rodriguez on behalf of Utter. “Utter as an underground worker at the WIPP facility foreseeably was a person who would be damaged and injured if Defendants breached their duties and obligations, and each Defendant knew this.”

The lawsuit points to specific safety and maintenance hazards underground at WIPP that led to unsafe working conditions including: ineffective self-rescue respiratory masks and systems, the removal of an automatic fire suppression system on the salt haul truck in October 2003 in favor of a manual fire suppression system by Southwest Safety Specialists, inadequate safety communications systems, and the use of flammable hydraulic fluid in the salt haul truck when the vehicle was designed specifically to operate with non-flammable hydraulic fluid.

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