Sunday, October 03, 2004

"I don't look to ever get anything but grief"

The horrible working conditions and decades long coverup of resulting health effects was one of the most tragic and shameful chapters of Cold War history. The Amarillo Globe has two articles today about the problem of compensating the veterans (here and here).

The thousands of workers who produced the nuclear warheads, bombs and artillery shells worked with almost no protection from the radioactive and other toxic materials that they were exposed to every day. Then when the cancers and other diseases began to develop years, or decades later, the federal government refused to recognize them as work-related or to provide for compensation.

So it was a great relief to those workers and the unions and other organizations that had been fighting for them when Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson announced in April 2000 that here was reversing

the government's long-standing policy of opposing employees' claims that work-related exposures to radioactive and toxic materials were killing or sickening them by the thousands.

"We are moving forward to do the right thing by these workers," Richardson said as he announced government plans to begin compensating sick workers and their survivors. "The men and women who served our nation in the nuclear weapons industries of World War II and the Cold War labored under dangerous conditions with some of the most hazardous materials known to mankind."

In 2000 the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act was passed, providing $150,000 to nuclear weapons workers sickened by exposure to radiation, silica or beryllium.

Not everyone believed they would ever see a dollar of compensation, however.
Ted Shutt died waiting - just like he thought he would.

Shutt, a soft-spoken man with a friendly smile, testified in an Amarillo public hearing four years ago that he retired from his Pantex job healthy as a horse. But soon afterward, doctors cut a cancerous lobe from his lung.

In March, the former Pantex worker died after cancer spread throughout his body and took its deadly toll. Shutt, 68, left behind a wife, a son, a daughter and two grandchildren.

Two years before his death, Shutt predicted he'd never hear the Labor Department's decision on whether 20 years of dismantling and assembling nuclear weapons caused the cancer that finally killed him.

"I don't look to ever get anything but grief," Shutt said then. "Everybody who has filed a claim will probably be dead before they ever hear they've been denied."
While there are some nuclear sites where certain kinds of cancers are assumed to be work-related, others required the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to perform a long, complicated, tedious "dose reconstruction."

In other words, NIOSH has to try to figure out how much radioactive material each worker was exposed to 30, 40 or 50 years ago in order to determine whether there is a greater than 50 percent likelihood that the worker's cancer was work-related. The job isn't easy:
Investigators at NIOSH receive a claimant's request from the Labor Department and then ask Energy Department officials for a worker's original dosimetry badge, which measured the worker's radiation dose.

"We prefer to use original badge data or bioassay results. We don't ask the Department of Energy to provide us annual summary data. We want the individual badge results or bioassay data," [Dr. Larry Elliott, who heads up NIOSH's Office of Compensation Analysis and Support] says. "We have to verify the integrity and the credibility of the data."

The agency also wants to know how and when the original badge data was collected. Workers decades ago may not have been monitored for different types of radiation because the technical know-how wasn't available, Elliott said.

"We factor in what might not have been monitored for or what might have been missed," Elliott said.

Years ago, record-keeping procedures for Pantex workers were limited, and government officials acknowledge not all employees were monitored.

"They only monitored a select few and then applied that dose to everybody else," Elliott said. "We look at that as well and try to factor in what the uncertainty is associated with assigning dose versus actually monitoring the person for their dose."
Unfortunately the proces hasn't been working as well as envisioned by lawmakers or by the workers who beleived that they would finally get some small token for the sacrifices they made:
According to Labor Department records, one Pantex cancer claim has been paid and another 19 claims have been paid for chronic beryllium disease, a potentially fatal lung disease.

But more than 480 Pantex workers haven't heard the last word on their claims. And many are critical of a program they see as slow to respond and mired in mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Thousands of former Pantex production technicians were exposed to radiation and gritty, black radioactive dust while building and dismantling nuclear warheads, bombs and artillery shells during Pantex's Cold War heyday. Others developed lung problems from beryllium exposure.
Former Pantex workers, like former production technician Robert Tolley, who worked with Ted Shutt, remember how bad the working conditions were:
Protective clothing consisted of coveralls back in Pantex's early days. Workers didn't wear respirators or masks. The plant gave employees underwear that the plant washed to keep them from carrying radioactive contamination back to their homes.

And many production technicians were caked with radioactive dust after their Pantex workday was done, Tolley said.

"You'd go in there with a pair of white socks on and when you went home they'd be black. You'd sneeze the black out of your head or blow your nose," he said. "Really, none of that serious monitoring took place until the early '90s."
Other parts of the nuclear veterans program have also failed to provide the promised compensation. Particularly troublesome is the program assigned to the Department of Energy that was supposed to assist nuclear veterans get workers' compensation for diseases other than cancer.

The sad part is that these workers were proud of what they were doing and the contribution they were making to their country. They deserve more than grief:
Brenda Britten, another former Pantex worker, said Shutt, who retired from the Air Force before starting at Pantex, was proud of his country and serious about his job. When some other workers gabbed and gossiped after meetings, he talked about the work at hand or his family, Britten says.

"When he walked down the ramp, he could have been in uniform," she remembers. "He carried himself with dignity."


More information on EEOICPA can be found at the Government Accountability Project. The Glove will run additional articles on Pantex workers who died before their claims could be processed.

Update: The Globe's series continues today with the story of Willis Marlin Collie, a former Pantex employee who died of cancer in 1999.