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Wednesday 13 June 2007
67 nuclear bomb plant workers died waiting for
Setback for Ill Workers at Nuclear Bomb Plant
Sixty-seven workers have died waiting for their benefits to
come through - ""We ask neither for sympathy nor charity. All we ask for is
By Dan Frosch
The New York Times
Former workers and supporters at the advisory panel's
Lakewood, Colorado - A federal
advisory panel recommended Tuesday that thousands of former workers at a
nuclear weapons plant be denied immediate government compensation for illnesses
that they say result from years of radiation exposure there.
Charlie Wolf showed his scar from
brain cancer surgery to an occupational health scientist.
The recommendation is a
significant setback for a large number of people once employed as plutonium
workers at the plant, Rocky Flats, 16 miles northwest of Denver. Their union,
the United Steelworkers of America, had petitioned the Department of Health and
Human Services to allow more than 3,000 of them to bypass a complex federal
evaluation and compensation process established by Congress in 2000.
In that time-consuming process,
sick workers from Rocky Flats and other American nuclear facilities may apply
for $150,000 in compensation, plus medical benefits, if there is evidence that
they suffer from any of 22 kinds of cancer linked to radiation. A worker must
first file a claim with the Labor Department, a step that brings a lengthy
investigation in which scientists from the National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health, through records, research and interviews, determine
eligibility by establishing the radiation dose incurred by the worker. If the
scientists are unable to determine the dose, the worker may file for "special
exposure cohort" status.
It was this status that was sought
by the former Rocky Flats workers. But after more than two years of hearings
and debate, the panel - the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, a
unit of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - decided on a vote of 6
to 4 Tuesday that the occupational safety scientists could accurately determine
dose exposure for almost all of the plant's former workers.
The board did recommend that a
relatively small subset of the petitioning workers be allowed to receive the
expedited benefits. These workers were exposed from 1959 to 1966, and the panel
found that the occupational safety agency could not be expected to establish
the dose for so early a period.
The board's recommendations now go
to the Department of Health and Human Services, though it is unclear when the
department will rule.
"I'm stunned," said Laura Schultz,
a former plutonium worker who has suffered from cervical and kidney cancer. "We
don't have the money to keep fighting for this."
One panel member, Dr. James
Melius, a physician, called the process "grossly unfair" and said the board had
had little opportunity to review the accounts of the former workers, many of
whom argued that the occupational safety agency's records were incomplete and
vastly understated their illnesses.
But a member who voted with the
majority, Mark Griffon, a consultant on radiation and hazardous waste, said he
felt that the agency's scientists had proved that they could accurately
reconstruct the radiation dose level for most Rocky Flats workers.
"At the end of the day," Mr.
Griffon said, "I do feel like we have data."
Rocky Flats opened in 1952 and
ultimately produced more than 60,000 nuclear weapons parts. It was closed in
1989 after a raid by federal agents investigating accusations of environmental
crimes on the part of its operator, Rockwell International, an Energy
Department contractor. The plant was designated a Superfund hazardous waste
site by the Environmental Protection Agency, and a cleanup took place from 1992
to 2005. It is now a wildlife sanctuary.
In the absence of expedited
benefits, a total of 2,682 Rocky Flats workers have filed claims over their
illnesses, the steelworkers union says, with 807 approved and 617 denied. The
rest, 1,258, are still pending.
On Monday, more than 100 Rocky
Flats workers and supporters attended a hearing of the advisory panel in this
Denver suburb. Some of them - burly men with worn faces and white-haired women
with slouched shoulders - told of suffering, and sometimes death, their
plain-spoken narratives in sharp contrast to the data-driven discussions of
Judy Padilla, who worked as a
sheet metal worker at Rocky Flats for 22 years and has since had a mastectomy,
told the board: "We ask neither for sympathy nor charity. All we ask for is the
Jennifer Thompson, a former Rocky
Flats worker who is a spokeswoman for the petitioners, told the panel that it
took an average of 742 days to process a successful claim. Sixty-seven workers
have died waiting for their benefits to come through, Ms. Thompson said.
Charlie Wolf, a former project
engineer at the plant who now suffers from brain and bone marrow cancer, said
he had waited more than four years before his claim was approved. "It's hard
for me to even read anymore," said Mr. Wolf, whose bald head is creased by a
nine-inch scar from brain surgery related to his cancer.
Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. of Colorado
and all the members of the state's Congressional delegation sent letters asking
the panel to support the petition. Representative Mark Udall testified on
Monday that the compensation program's red tape left workers in a "Kafkaesque
Michelle Dobrovolny, 42, is one of
15 family members who worked at Rocky Flats. Four have died of cancer. Five
others are sick, among them Ms. Dobrovolny herself, who has a brain tumor.
"We're the forgotten bunch," she
Original New York Times article
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