A little over 25 years ago, I was working for a group called Environmentalists For Full Employement, trying to build coalitions between unions and environmentalists. We joined with the anti-nuclear group SANE to bring a bunch of workers, represented by the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers union, from the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio to talk with their Senators about the working conditions at the plant. The Senators (John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum) were sympathetic, if somwhat skeptical that the US government would be treating workers this way. Nothing came of the meetings.
Little did we know how bad things really were. In fact, it wasn't until the Clinton administration that the federal government finally admitted that we were killing thousands of workers in the name of national security with diseases such as emphysema, lung cancer, asbestosis, beryllium disease. According to experts, over half of the 10,000 workers who were employed at Piketon are at risk of occupational illnesses from radiation and chemical exposures.
The Dayton Daily News is running a three-part series on the worker and environmental devastation caused by our government to cold war nuclear workers at the Piketon plant. (The first two parts are here and here.)
Government investigators blame problems at the now-closed Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant on decades of slipshod safety practices, accidental toxic releases and routine mishandling of chemical and radioactive material.The environment around the plant didn't fare much better.
The cleanup cost at the uranium enrichment plant, estimated at $3 billion, could eventually top the $4.5 billion spent at the U.S. Department of Energy's former Feed Materials Production Center in Fernald, according to Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials. That would make the Piketon cleanup the most expensive environmental reclamation project in Ohio history.
For decades, operators of the government-owned plant created a secret dump, spraying PCBs and uranium-contaminated oils on dusty roads, burying hazardous waste in unlined landfills, pouring toxins into waterways, allowing radioactive incinerator ash to scatter in the wind — even tilling radioactive oils into the ground.
Former workers told the Dayton Daily News chilling tales of a workplace in which managers downplayed risks, enforced a code of silence, and failed to protect employees against some of the most dangerous substances on earth.
In the early years, few environmental regulations existed across the United States and the hazards of chemical and radioactive materials weren't fully understood. By the 1970s, the government began regulating the handling and disposal of hazardous materials, and took action against companies that didn't follow the rules.Even after EPA gained access to the plant in the late 1980's, the nuclear officials continued to claim that they were example from all environmental rules. Today the plant is being cleaned up, but funding doesn't begin to touch what must still be done.
But unlike private companies, the Energy Department was allowed to set its own environmental standards, at least when it came to nuclear facilities such as Piketon. Energy officials, in effect, said, "trust us." Until the late 1980s, environmental regulators had no jurisdiction — or access — to the Piketon plant, and even now secrecy cloaks many plant practices.
All nuclear facilities must keep some practices confidential for reasons of national security. But the secrecy and self-regulation at Piketon veiled an astounding level of environmental destruction.
In 2000, the Energy Department secretary launched a massive investigation that documented the plant's grim environmental record: mishandling of hazardous and radioactive material, failure to properly monitor environmental emissions or workers' exposure to radiation, ignoring safety rules. The investigators identified 400 accidental releases of uranium gas or toxic fluorine since the 1950s, although they said the true total was unknown due to poor record keeping.
In 2000, the Clinton adminstration pushed through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act which guaranteed $150,000 for those atomic workers at certain plants -- like Piketon -- that came down with certain types of cancers, as well as lifetime medical benefits. Workers at other nuclear plants, however, had to have their dose "reconstructed" by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) before they're compensated. The program has been riddled with problems, however.
$2.2 billion has been handed out so far.
But the program's progress has been anything but smooth. It's been marked by bureaucratic delays, conflicts of interest, allegations of shaky science and what some say is an anti-worker bias that denies compensation to deserving claimants, many of them elderly.Those who are required to have their dose "reconstructed" are in particularly bad shape. Three quarter of their claims have been rejected:
Of the 58,000 applicants nationwide, only about 15 percent have received money or medical benefits. The rest have been turned down, are waiting to have their cases heard, or are struggling to prove their illnesses are work-related.
"New problems are cropping up every day," said Richard Miller of the watchdog Government Accountability Project, who lobbied for the program's creation. "I'm just heartsick about what they've done to this program."
Until 1999, federal Energy officials had a simple response to claims by sick atomic workers: Don't blame us. The feds denied that workers were sickened at Energy Department facilities such as Piketon, and plant contractors often blocked employees' bids for state workers' compensation.
Critics say the program puts an insurmountable burden on most Energy workers to prove their illnesses had occupational causes, particularly because many old plant records are missing, incomplete, changed or, some allege, falsified.Workers were lied to and given lousy personal protective equipment:
Piketon plant guard Jeffrey Walburn and the president of his union local are calling for a criminal investigation, saying worker exposure records being used to decide compensation cases are "irretrievably corrupted" by falsification. Walburn, who has a lung ailment, said plant records his lawyer obtained with a subpoena show that someone changed his recorded exposure reading to zero after he inhaled a noxious gas in a 1994 accident.
Both lawsuits Walburn filed against the Lockheed Martin Corp., parent company of the now-defunct contractor he worked for at Piketon, have been "dismissed as having no merit," said Gail E. Rymer, Lockheed spokeswoman.
Elliott said plant records were "in some cases modified or changed by DOE."
"I understand and fully appreciate that these Cold War veterans — their activities were kept in secret and in many cases what they were exposed to was never revealed to them," he said. "I find that to be deplorable."
Until the 1990s, guards wearing no protective gear often were posted around radioactive hazards, and even had to train in contaminated areas. When accidental releases occurred, guards often responded without adequate respiratory protection.Some people, like Piketon plant chemist James Reynolds are not just having trouble proving that they were exposed; they can't even locate records proving that they worked there because they worked for contractors. For Reynolds and thousands of others, the tragedy continues.
Charles Yeley, who developed about 50 skin cancer lesions and a lung disease after years as a plant guard, said he never considered the dangers.
"At that time, you just trusted the government," said Yeley, who received compensation this year. "We were out there wallerin' around in it (radiation) and I didn't know a thing."
Over nearly five decades, thousands of people like Reynolds passed through the gates at Piketon, doing a job that many coveted for its good wages and benefits. But now instead of serving their government, a good many of them are fighting it, often while battling debilitating or terminal illnesses.
"The Cold War is still being fought in nursing homes, in convalescent facilities and in emergency rooms and in hospices all over the United States," Borris said. "It's not the type of killer that kills right away.
"It kills over a long period of time."