A Defeat for Rocky Flats Workers

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The men and women in the hotel conference room had helped manufacture plutonium triggers for atomic weapons at the Rocky Flats weapons plant, and then allegedly fell victim to at least 22 different kinds of cancer in the process. As they listened to the June 12 proceedings, they heard that they had been denied an opportunity for speedy compensation for their illnesses and medical bills.

Women moaned "No, no, no," and men raised their voices in spontaneous outbursts of disappointment as a federal advisory board voted 6-4 to recommend to the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services a continued time-consuming, case-by-case reconstruction of exposure to radiation levels. A police officer shifted her feet nervously at the back of the room at the Lakewood, Colo., Sheraton Hotel, as assenting members of the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health defended their votes by insisting that their board's only mandate was to determine and affirm the possibility of accurate "exposure reconstruction."

The former Rocky Flats workers had hoped that the board would approve Special Exposure Cohort (SEC) for all workers at the plant, meaning expedited access to compensation. Instead, the government panel approved that status only for workers employed at Rocky Flats from Jan. 1, 1959 to Dec. 31, 1966, saying there simply weren't enough good records available for determining each worker's level of exposure to radiation on the job (earlier, pre-1959 employees were also granted SEC status). The panel said that all cases of employee illness following 1966 will be reviewed individually, a tedious process in which, some estimate, one in 10 workers would die before compensation was approved. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, $95.7 million in compensation has now been paid to 674 people. More than 22,000 people worked at Rocky Flats before it closed in 1988. The uncompensated workers have waited nearly 850 days for the board to rule on their petition to receive expedited claims processing.

During the process, workers were allowed to address the panel. They told of missing and inaccurate records, of being warned by their managers that their radiation exposure levels were too high, and so their radiation detection badges were quietly put away in office drawers so they wouldn't lose their jobs or be transferred to lower-paying positions. They told of seeing an orange cloud surrounding a building following an accident; of routine radioactive material spills where everyone would "bail" from a building and then have to return to mop things up. They told of 55-gallon drums of vile materials exploding and an individual who single-handedly entered a room wearing just a face mask to turn off a valve where radioactive material was spewing forth, suffering burns on both of his arms.

Dr. Paul Ziemer, professor emeritus of Purdue University's School of Health Sciences, and the chairman of the panel said that said Tuesday's vote does not preclude revisiting the SEC question in the future. Ziemer isn't unsympathetic to those who felt today's vote was a loss. "Some of these cases have been years in the process." He notes that when the claimant has died, "their estate can still be compensated." Nevertheless, he says, "It's a frustrating process." Dr. Genevieve S. Roessler, editor of Health Physics Society's newsletter and a member of the panel, said she thinks a number of workers either misunderstand or have been misled regarding their illnesses and what the federal panel can do.

The board was appointed by President Bush to help implement the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000, an offshoot of former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's efforts to bring transparency to the debilitating effects of radioactive materials on worker health — going back to the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in Richardson's home state of New Mexico. "We're reversing the decades-old practice of opposing worker claims and moving forward to do the right thing," Richardson said when he announced the plan.

Now the board addresses energy worker issues around the country — from the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant to the workers who handled plutonium at a weapons plant in Paducah, Kentucky — without, its chairman told TIME, any pressure at all to consider impact upon the federal treasury. "I don't think any of us are concerned with that," Ziemer says. "I don't even know how much money is available. We were never told to try to limit the numbers." He added, "There's a lot of tension in what I'd call the emotional aspects. But why didn't Congress fix this in the first place? We've tried to do this very diligently. We all struggle with our empathy for the workers and what we're charged to do by law. This same story is multiplied all around the country."

But former Colorado Republican Congressman Bob Beauprez, who spoke on behalf of the Rocky Flats workers, says Congress did try to fix things. Beauprez grew up near Rocky Flats and knew families with three generations of Rocky Flats workers. He called the workers "patriots." He said, "We won that [cold] war. And knowing full well there was risk inherent, they did their jobs.... Democrats and Republicans in Congress — all representatives of the taxpayers — said, 'Take care of these people.' 'Don't submit these people to endless torture. These people did a job.'"

"They did what we asked them to do, and we won the war. Then they cleaned it up, under budget, ahead of schedule, and today it's a wildlife preserve," he said. "Now we sit here trying to find ways to say 'Bad things happen to good people.'"