In 1980, the government authorized a program to remove irradiated soil from around Groom Lake. Satellite photos confirm crews removed massive amounts of dirt from the area. Surrounding cities reported increases in cancer rates and many sued the government (with varying degrees of success), claiming the tests caused them to get sick.
Another hazard at Area 51 involved the disposal of classified technology and vehicles. In the 1980s, crews at Area 51 dug large, open pits and dumped toxic materials into them. They burned the materials using jet fuel and suffered exposure to chemicals and fumes [source: Jacobs].
According to a lawsuit filed against several government officials, the workers requested safety equipment such as breathing masks, but were denied due to budgetary concerns. When they asked if they might bring their own equipment, their superiors told them that for security reasons they could not bring outside equipment into the base, except gloves. Several civilian employees became sick from the exposure -- two eventually died. Helen Frost, the widow of Area 51 employee Robert Frost, and several Groom Lake employees worked with attorney Jonathan Turley to file the lawsuit [source: Jacobs].
One interesting item from the lawsuit that has since caused a big stir in Area 51 circles is the submission of an unclassified security manual into evidence. Turley argued that the manual not only proved the base existed, it also proved the government was aware of the dangers of handling hazardous waste and acted with negligence toward the employees at Area 51. The government retroactively classified the security manual, and Judge Philip Pro didn't allow it as evidence [source: Jacobs]. Some claim the manual to be a fake, though if this is the case it raises a question -- why would the government declare a fake document to be classified information?
President Bill Clinton signed an executive order in September 1995 exempting Area 51 from disclosure of the results of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigations of the site. The order referred to Area 51 as "the Air Force's operating location near Groom Lake, Nevada." Judge Pro eventually dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that investigation into the claims constituted a breach of national security. Turley argued that this set a dangerous precedent in that the government could now hide crimes through the excuse of national security [source: Jacobs]. The policy relieved the government of accountability to the people it represents.
Area 51 still allows the EPA to inspect the facility to ensure it meets environmental requirements. However, all reports are classified and can't be published. Many argue that without publication of the results, the facility remains unaccountable. Clinton's executive order permits the reports to remain sealed, despite the fact that the law requires all such reports be made available to the public. The president must renew the order each year, and as of 2013, that's still the case.
In the next section, we'll look at the town of Rachel, Nev., which has received more than its share of attention as the closest town to Area 51.