Nuclear scars

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Nearly 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War’s scars have
yet to heal.

Thousands of workers who spent their careers building and maintaining
nuclear weapons and reactors in the name of defeating communism now
suffer from dozens of diseases linked to the radiation and toxins
they faced on a daily basis.

Ken Bailey of Idaho Falls lost his pancreas to cancer in 2008. Today,
his life is governed by prescriptions and a blood-sugar monitor and
insulin pump that keep him alive.

“We spent our third anniversary in the hospital,” said Donna Bailey,
Ken’s wife of almost five years. “We used to fiesta, and we used to
go to the beach. Now we go to Walgreens.”

Ken Bailey, 69, said he’s never been a smoker or a drinker. He
believes his cancer was caused by exposure to radiation and heavy
metals during his 33-year career as an electronic technician at the
Idaho National Laboratory site.

But his claims for compensation and medical coverage through federal
law have been denied by the U.S. Department of Labor. Late last year,
Bailey’s doctor wrote a letter to the Labor Department stating his
belief that Bailey’s exposure to radiation and toxins “could be
contributing factors to the development of his cancer.”

The agency wrote back that Bailey’s doctor failed to establish “a
complete and accurate medical and factual history of how (Bailey’s)
pancreatic cancer is related to radiological or toxic substances.”

“I’m just desperate,” Bailey said. “I have no one on my side.”

In 2001, Congress enacted the Energy Employees Occupational Illness
Compensation Program Act, a law designed to provide compensation and
medical benefits for the nation’s Cold War nuclear workers.

If they are diagnosed with certain types of cancer, workers who were
employed at one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s several dozen
“special exposure cohort” facilities are automatically eligible for a
$150,000 compensation payment, as well as medical benefits.

The INL site is not included in the special exposure cohort.

Workers such as Bailey who were exposed to radiation at noncohort
sites must demonstrate at least a 50 percent probability that
on-the-job exposure caused their illnesses. If they or their
survivors fail to meet that standard, their claims are rejected.

To determine eligibility, the Labor Department relies on the services
of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which
reconstructs workers’ cumulative radiation doses.

The path to compensation is easier for workers who suffer from
illnesses linked to toxic exposure. They need only show that toxins
were a significant factor in causing, aggravating or contributing to
their condition.

Since the compensation program went into effect, only about 13
percent of claims filed with the Department of Labor by INL site
workers have resulted in compensation payments.

Nationwide, the approval rate is about 30 percent.

Repeated efforts to contact representatives for the Labor Department
were unsuccessful.

Anne Block, a former claims examiner for the compensation program’s
Seattle office, said NIOSH spends more money reconstructing radiation
doses than the Labor Department pays out in compensation based on the
institute’s work. Further complicating the dose-reconstruction
process is the fact that hundreds of workers’ records are incomplete
because they were lost or poorly kept by the DOE, according to
government reports.

Even when claims are approved, they often take years to process.
Sandy Sase said her father, Floyd Snoderly, who worked as a
pipe-fitter on the INL site in the early 1950s, died waiting for the
Labor Department to approve his claim. Snoderly’s radiation-based
compensation was subsequently approved, but his claim for
toxin-related impairment compensation expired with his death.

Sase said her experience with the Labor Department led her to believe
the agency willfully obstructed her father’s claims.

“It’s pretty heinous. It’s inexcusable,” she said. “In my opinion,
they’re just sitting there waiting for these people to die off.”

Sase is not alone in her suspicion.

Some advocates for nuclear workers complain that the compensation
process is so complicated, lengthy and difficult to navigate that it
discourages former workers and their survivors from filing new
claims. Others openly question whether the federal government is
conspiring to delay and block their claims.

“It’s an adversarial process,” said Mary Burket, whose father worked
at the INL site from 1958 to 1961 and died in 1995 after suffering
from respiratory disease and dozens of strokes and heart attacks.
“It’s really to make us go away — sweep us under the carpet.”

Block blamed the George W. Bush administration for fostering a
culture within the claims office that encourages denials.

Now working as an attorney specializing in nuclear workers’ claims,
Block said her Labor Department office in Seattle was routinely
staffed with underqualified, politically connected workers who were
likely to bend to unethical pressure from superiors to deny claims.

On one occasion, she said, office administrators announced that the
Seattle office, which had the lowest approval rate in the nation, was
the country’s most successful.

“It’s an environment that’s conducive to protecting the (U.S.)
Treasury,” Block said. “It’s very difficult to believe that my
government is capable of this kind of conduct.”

Shelby Hallmark, director of the Labor Department’s nuclear worker
compensation program since 2004, testified before Congress in March
2006 that “cost containment is not part of any strategy or
involvement that the Department of Labor has had in (the
compensation) process.”

But independent reviews of the compensation program support, to a
certain extent, accusations of the agency’s harshest critics.

In a 2006 congressional committee hearing, a policy analyst for the
Government Accountability Office testified that internal e-mails
suggested a Labor Department “management plan” for second-guessing
claims NIOSH deemed eligible for compensation.

Hallmark later claimed the e-mail Richard Miller referred to was a
poorly worded message from a low-level staff member and doesn’t mean
the agency is hiding a management plan aimed at denying claims.

Under President Barack Obama’s labor secretary, Hilda Solis, the
agency’s treatment of nuclear workers and their compensation claims
hasn’t improved much, Block said. As in the Bush years, she said,
workers seeking toxin-related compensation and benefits are often
required to meet the 50 percent probability standard that should only
be applied to radiation cases.

Block said another Labor Department policy left over from her years
as a claims examiner dictates that the agency shelve any case older
than 350 days until the government allots money to pay examiners
overtime wages to process it.

A GAO report released this month stopped short of accusing the Labor
Department of malfeasance, but its subtitle, “Additional Independent
Oversight and Transparency Would Improve Program’s Credibility,”
speaks for itself.

“Because claimants do not have access to the full informational
resources in the site exposure matrix, they cannot review the
totality of the evidence that Labor considered when adjudicating
their claims and thus may not be able to understand the basis for, or
potentially challenge, a denial,” the report says.

“In addition, to the extent that the information in the database is
not available to be reviewed, there are few opportunities for
claimants and scientists to discover and remedy any areas where
information is missing or inaccurate.”

The GAO report agreed with complaints among many workers and their
advocates that the compensation program is, at times, so complex as
to be incomprehensible.

Bailey said his battles with the program’s bureaucracy have left him
feeling overmatched, with no one to help him navigate the process.

As both he and his wife can attest, the golden years are sometimes
harder than advertised.
“You retire and you think life’s easy,” he said. “Now I’m writing the
biggest reports of my life, trying to do research at a graduate-college level.”