By Michael Alison Chandler and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 12, 2007
Walter McKenzie's assignment toward the end of the Cold War was to mop up after mishaps at a nuclear weapons factory. With a crew of other laborers from rural Georgia, he swabbed away leaks and spills inside the secret buildings, until one day his body became so contaminated with radiation that alarms at the factory went off as he passed.
"They couldn't scrub the radiation off my skin -- even after four showers," McKenzie, 52, recalled of his most terrifying day at the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant near Aiken, S.C. "They took my clothes, my watch and even my ring, and sent me home in rubber slippers and a jumpsuit."
Later, when doctors discovered the first of 19 malignant tumors on his bladder, McKenzie followed the same torturous path as thousands of nuclear weapons workers with cancer: He filed a claim for federal compensation. It was denied.
Unable to access secret government files, or even some of his own personnel records, McKenzie could not sufficiently prove that he was exposed to something that may have made him sick. Nor can most of the 104,000 other workers, retirees and family members who have sought help from a federal program intended to atone for decades of hazardous working conditions at scores of nuclear weapons facilities around the country.
Since its inception in 2000, the compensation program has cut more than 20,000 checks and given long-delayed recognition to workers whose illnesses were hidden costs of the Cold War's military buildup.
Yet, of the 72,000 cases processed, more than 60 percent have been denied. Thousands of other applicants have been waiting for years for an answer. Overall, only 21 percent of applicants have received checks. Even as the nation continues to close and dismantle many nuclear weapons sites, a growing number of those who helped build the bombs are turning to lawyers and legislators to argue they are being treated unfairly.
Many complain that the compensation process is slow, frustrating, even insulting. "You get exposed to something that's so bad you have to leave your clothes behind," McKenzie said, "then they try to tell you it's not their fault that you got sick."
Some evidence suggests the government has tried to limit payouts for budget reasons. Internal memos obtained by congressional investigators show the Bush administration chafing over the program's rising costs and fighting to block measures that would increase workers' chances of compensation.
But Labor Department officials who oversee the program say it has been successful, pointing to the large sums distributed: about $2.6 billion in payments in five years, far more than some early estimates. Missing or unreliable records and the murkiness of cancer science, the officials say, make it difficult to satisfy all the claimants.
"In a compensation program, you get benefits out to people who are eligible and you inevitably have to deal with the fact that some people are not eligible," said Shelby Hallmark, director of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs. "As for the assumption that the program is somehow trying to block people from getting compensation, nothing could be further from the truth."
David Michaels, a former Energy Department official who helped launch the program in the late 1990s, said it is designed to "bend over backward" to award compensation to deserving workers. "Most of the people who should be compensated are being compensated," said Michaels, now associate chairman of George Washington University's department of environmental and occupational health.
Still, Labor's management of the program has drawn bipartisan, and often fierce, criticism from members of Congress.
Former congressman John N. Hostettler, an Indiana Republican who chaired a House subcommittee overseeing the program, said at a hearing last December that Labor Department memos reflect a "culture of disdain" toward workers and raise questions about whether the department exceeded its authority by using "legalistic interpretations" to limit eligible workers.
"To the bean counters, I would remind you that these aren't normal beans you are counting," Hostettler said. "These funds are a small acknowledgment of the sacrifice by workers whose lives were put at risk to make this country safe."Clear Line on a Murky Issue
The compensation plan was unveiled in September 1999 by then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. "We're reversing the decades-old practice of opposing worker claims and moving forward to do the right thing," he said in 2000.
The shift was prompted in part by a drumbeat of reports about hazards at nuclear weapons plants, including articles in The Washington Post that showed how the government for years fought lawsuits from workers in Paducah, Ky., who were exposed to plutonium 100,000 times as radioactive as they were trained to handle.
Under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, the government agreed to provide $150,000 and medical benefits to claimants who developed certain diseases and cancers. Another part of the program covers those exposed to toxic chemicals.
For each claim, government investigators review the evidence and decide whether a worker's illness was more likely than not caused by exposure to radiation or toxic chemicals at work. Under the act, the claim is denied if the probability is ruled to be less than 50 percent.
The complex task of coming up with such estimates through reconstructing the conditions inside secret plants as much as 60 years ago was assigned to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH.
The estimates are based largely on personnel files and historical radiation measurements at the plants. But the records are often so incomplete and unreliable that it can be impossible to determine a worker's true exposure. For example, workers would sometimes remove the badges they were supposed to wear to monitor their cumulative doses of radiation.
"At every site, you hear stories about workers being told to put their badges in their lockers," said Mark Griffon, a radiation-safety expert who advises the government on worker exposure. "If workers wore their badges and ended up exceeding their quarterly radiation limit, they could be laid off or put in a different job."
Another obstacle is that records are becoming harder to track as plants are dismantled. Early this year, for example, more than 400 boxes of medical records that had been contaminated by radiation at an Ohio weapons facility turned up in a landfill in Los Alamos, N.M. The government is deciding whether to exhume them.Long Wait in Colorado
The compensation program does provide a path for the government to help workers if records are lost or questionable. But critics say officials are reluctant to pursue it.
NIOSH and a White House-appointed panel on radiation exposure can recommend groups of workers from a particular site for a "special exposure cohort," making them automatically eligible for compensation if they suffer from leukemia, thyroid cancer or one of 20 other cancers.
So far, groups of workers from 18 sites have been added to the special exposure cohort, and petitions are pending for workers from a dozen other sites. The process can be difficult, as people who worked at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant who applied for that status have learned.
On the rugged foothills outside Denver, there's little sign now of the sprawling plutonium facility that once employed as many as 7,000 people. The site was dismantled in a $7 billion, 10-year effort that ended in 2005 and is being turned into a wildlife refuge.
With the plant gone, many workers are struggling to re-create what happened in the 800-building complex that manufactured plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs. Thousands of fires were recorded in the plants' 40-year history, including one on Mother's Day 1969 that burned for several hours and released massive amounts of radioactive material.
Of the more than 5,100 Rocky Flats claims filed, about 1,400 have been approved. Many applicants who were denied blame missing or inadequate records and petitioned two years ago for special cohort status.
NIOSH officials recommended against the special status for Rocky Flats, reasoning that they could account for missing records by altering their models and overestimating exposures. Then, earlier this month, the radiation advisory board recommended the special cohort for a small number of workers -- those employed from 1952 to 1958, when gaps in the recordkeeping apparently were the largest.
Advocates for the Rocky Flats workers point to multiple cases to illustrate the difficulty of meeting the government's standard for compensation without being part of the special cohort.
One worker, Donald Gabel, contracted a rare form of brain cancer at age 29, after nearly 10 years at the plant, and died in 1980. Months before his death, he testified that his job required him to climb several times a day to the top of a furnace, his head inches from a pipe expelling radioactive exhaust. Government contractors said they could not find his records and could not take new measurements because the pipe had been removed.
After Gabel died, his wife requested tests of plutonium levels in his brain, but she says government scientists told her they had lost most of the tissue and could not take an accurate sample.
Despite the problems, Gabel's widow, Kae Williams, won a rare victory in a traditional workers' compensation lawsuit, getting about $15,000 for her three children. But when she applied for additional benefits under the new program in 2001, the claim took four years to process and was ultimately denied. A government computer program found only a 41.73 percent chance that her husband's brain cancer was work-related.
"They make it sound like they are doing the right thing," Williams said. "For a glimpse, you think they are. And they are not."Ill and Unaided
At South Carolina's Savannah River plant, workers may face longer odds than most. They lack the organization and lobbying advantages found at some larger sites where workers tended to be white and represented by strong unions.
"Black workers in these plants were put in high-exposure areas without proper protection or monitoring," said Robert W. Warren, a lawyer who represents dozens of Savannah River workers. "They worked in some of the most dangerous places, but there are no records today to show that."
When it opened in 1951, the Savannah River nuclear complex was one of the first employers in South Carolina's rural midlands to offer African Americans a shot at relatively good wages and benefits. But not all jobs at the plant were created equal.
The jobs offered to black workers in those days were often menial ones: cleaning spills, scraping paint, removing waste, sometimes in the most dangerous parts of the plant, said Wayne Knox, a radiation-safety expert who was a contractor at the Savannah River plant for nearly two decades. In the '50s and '60s, he said, workers often were kept in the dark about risks.
"Not just blacks, but also [white] people from poorer neighborhoods were put in a position where they had a lot of unnecessary exposures," said Knox, who now advises some families filing claims.
The sprawling, 300-square-mile site still contains one of the highest concentrations of radioactive waste of any weapons plant in the country, most of it in swimming-pool-size tanks. Special exposure cohort status has not been granted for the plant's workers; in a region that remains very poor, there are few advocates available to argue the workers' case in Washington.
McKenzie, the Savannah River laborer, was angered when government officials calculated the probability that his work caused his bladder cancer at only 28 percent. He became even angrier when he learned that the plant had been unable to locate many of his files -- including records for the day he became so contaminated his clothes had to be destroyed. "There were whole months where the data is missing," he said.
McKenzie has asked a Labor Department appeals panel to reconsider the decision, while he struggles to pay hefty medical expenses that include regular visits to the urologist to see whether his cancer has returned. Having mostly given up hope for a government check, he now works a second job, cleaning up spills and leaks in private homes a few miles from the weapons plant.
"At first it looked like I had a good claim, but it didn't go anywhere," McKenzie said wearily. "A person doing it by himself has no wind."