Workers unknowingly exposed to radiation seek compensation from special fund

By Gerry Smith
Sunday, August 8, 2010; 10:31 PM

CHICAGO -- Four years ago, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama called them "veterans of the Cold War" and pledged to help them receive compensation.

But today, many former workers at Blockson Chemical in Joliet, Ill., and their survivors still have not been paid from a fund created in 2000 to make amends for exposing workers to high levels of radiation without telling them or providing adequate protection.

Among them is Phyllis Keca, 84, whose husband, John, thought he was manufacturing laundry detergents during his 23 years at Blockson. He wore only a paper mask while handling tanks that, unknown to him, were filled with uranium and radium to be used in the production of nuclear weapons.

He was "always sick," his wife said, and would come home covered in dust that she now believes was toxic and contributed to his death in 1996 from colon cancer at age 80.

"It's deceitful and it's deceiving because my husband went through so much," said Keca, who lives in Joliet, just a few miles from where her husband once worked. "They made us feel like they were promising us something and then reneged."

That could change in the coming weeks. By early September, federal officials are expected to decide on a special petition filed on behalf of former Blockson workers and their survivors, who struggled not only with radiation-induced cancer but also with a complex federal bureaucracy.

The petition would make it easier for Blockson employees to file claims by eliminating the requirement that they prove their illnesses were radiation-related.

"These are situations involving people who have waited for years to get a fair shake by the system, and we want to do the best we can to make sure they get that," said Fred Blosser, a spokesman for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which helps administer the program.

At stake are claims filed on behalf of former Blockson workers who helped build atomic weapons at the facility from March 1, 1951, to June 30, 1960.

Blockson employees were among more than 600,000 industrial workers nationwide who helped build and test nuclear weapons for what became the Energy Department during and after World War II.

In 2000, Congress established a fund to give $150,000 plus medical benefits to workers who got certain cancers caused by handling radioactive materials. If the workers had died, the money would be paid to their survivors.

But the pace of payouts has been slow and the burden of proof has been high. Of 363 claims filed on behalf of Blockson workers or their relatives, 102 have been paid, according to Labor Department statistics.

Under the petition filed on behalf of Blockson employees, former workers need a doctor's report verifying they had one of several specific types of cancers -- including colon cancer -- but they do not need to prove that the illness was radiation-related.

In addition, many former workers and their families have been kept in the dark about the status of their claims, according to a Government Accountability Office report released in March.

After 10 years of waiting, Keca is skeptical that the federal government will finally pay her. But if the money does arrive, "it would make life a little more pleasant," she said. "I could stop counting pennies."

-- Chicago Tribune

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