| A Deathly Postscript Comes Back to Life |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 1999; Page A1 PADUCAH, Ky.Stricken with cancer, his body mottled with painful sores, uranium worker Joe Harding picked up a pen for a final postscript to his nine-year struggle against the U.S.-owned factory he blamed for his fatal illness. "It is absolutely futile," he wrote just before his 1980 death, "like fighting a tiger with a toothpick."
Two decades later, Harding is being proclaimed a "Cold War hero" by the same government that brushed aside his claims of dangerous radiation inside the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in western Kentucky.
Revelations this week of worker exposure to plutonium at the Paducah plant have rekindled interest in the Harding case, which was championed briefly by anti-nuclear groups in the early 1980s as an example of the human cost of building America's nuclear arsenal. Although experts at the time linked Harding's ailments to radiation, the Department of Energy in 1981 dismissed Harding's reports of dangerous working conditions and declared the plant to be safe. Harding's disability pension and medical insurance were dropped and he was left nearly penniless.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who has launched a probe into worker exposures at Paducah, said yesterday the government owed Harding and other workers a thorough investigation into whether their service in the nation's nuclear weapons complex had placed them in harm's way.
"Joe Harding was a hero of the Cold War," Richardson said in statement to The Post. "But in the past, I believe that the government basically said -- without any review -- that there is no established linkage between the exposure these workers had and their illness. The Clinton administration is saying that's not our policy. We're going to make sure these workers are taken care of."
The renewed interest in Harding came amid a flurry of calls for an expanded probe into environmental and safety problems at the plant. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Monday demanded a congressional hearing into reports that contaminated material was dumped outside the plant. Kentucky Gov. Paul E. Patton (D) has appointed a state task force to examine claims of environmental damage. And Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) has asked the Department of Energy to account for contaminated uranium from Paducah that was shipped to a sister plant in Portsmouth, Ohio.
David Michaels, the department's assistant secretary of environment, safety and health, told workers at Paducah the agency had let them down in failing to inform them about contaminants in the workplace. "There's been a real communications problem here," he told a news conference Monday.
The Washington Post reported on Sunday that plutonium and other highly radioactive metals slipped into the plant over 23 years in shipments of recycled uranium from U.S. plutonium production factories.
Sealed documents filed as part of a lawsuit against the plant's former operators allege that workers were exposed to plutonium-laced dust through the 1970s in the hot, smoky buildings where uranium was turned into fuel for bombs and nuclear power plants.
One of those workers was Joe Harding, whose case has emerged as a powerful symbol of environmental and bureaucratic ills that allegedly plagued the facility. Although no comprehensive medical studies have been done of the health effects on plant workers, union officials and others have been tracking cases of cancer at the plant. Harding himself kept a list of more than 50 cancers among 200 people who began working with him at the plant in the early 1950s.
Richardson has ordered a comprehensive medical review of current workers and an investigation of links between radiation exposures and illnesses.
Union officials said yesterday the government not only failed to protect Harding, but also fought vigorously to prevent the worker and his widow from receiving a pension or medical insurance.
"The DOE took the Joe Harding case very seriously: No dollar was spared in seeking to deny his claims," said Richard Miller, a policy analyst for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union, which represents workers at the plant. "No effort was spared in their scorched-earth campaign to deny what was overwhelmingly obvious."
In the months before succumbing to cancer at age 58, Harding meticulously documented environmental problems at the plant in tape recordings and in letters and journal entries obtained by The Post.
It was "important, patriotic, secret work," Harding wrote of the job he started in 1952, the year the plant opened. "Brainwashing started in training school: 'Don't talk to anyone. Never mention radiation. The public is stupid about radiation.' "
Soon Harding was put to work as a "process operator," mixing powdered uranium with fluorine and other chemicals. Inside the buildings, he wrote, the air was "heavy" with uranium dust, which is mildly radioactive and toxic if ingested or inhaled. Unknown to workers at the time, it also contained small amounts of plutonium and other radioactive metals that are thousands of times more dangerous than uranium.
"I spent all those years breathing uranium hexafluoride gas so thick and heavy that you could see the haze in the air," Harding said in a hand-written account in 1979. "You could taste it coated on your teeth and in your throat and lungs. . . . Powder on the floor was thick enough that you would leave tracks."
If workers worried about radioactive exposure from the dust, their concerns were brushed aside, Harding said. He said the official line from supervisors was: "You will not get any more radiation in this work than you would get from wearing a luminous dial wristwatch."
Harding had worked at the plant less than a year when the first medical symptoms appeared, according to records made available by his widow. Lesions appeared on his legs, and slowly spread through the rest of his body. His weight dropped from 175 to 125 pounds. Searing pain radiated from his stomach and he vomited so frequently his co-workers mockingly called him "Joe Erp."
Later, fingernail-like calcium growths began emerging from his finger joints, elbows and knees. X-rays of his lungs turned up odd-looking pockmarks. He lost most of his stomach to cancer.
Physicians were mystified by Harding's ailments, though privately, he recalled, some suggested a possible cause: Radiation exposure. Harding didn't believe it.
"Radiation? Hell, no!" he remembered saying. Later, though, as the symptoms worsened, Harding began to doubt assurances by Union Carbide, the plant operator, about safety. He remembered feeling nervous about maintenance jobs that required him to crawl inside large pipes used to carry radioactive uranium gas between buildings.
"Pitch dark, full of UF6 [uranium hexafluoride] smoke and powder," he said of the pipes. "Felt like saying 'Goodbye, world,' on entering."
Eventually Harding's increasingly vocal complaints about working conditions earned him a reputation as a troublemaker, and he bounced around from one section of the plant to another. Finally, in 1971, the plant offered him a full-disability pension, citing a leg injury that Harding had received on the job.
Harding accepted the offer and went home to wait for his first check. It never came. He later learned that his disability claim had been rejected, and along with it his pension and medical insurance.
"This left me 50 years old with no job, and a crippled leg to get worse," he wrote. "No stomach. Bad lungs. No way to get a job, no way to make a living."
Months after his death from stomach cancer in 1980, Harding's medical records were reviewed by Karl Z. Morgan, an internationally known radiation expert who concluded Harding's health problems were "strongly suggestive" of radiation exposure from chronic inhalation of uranium dust. Later, Harding's body was exhumed for testing, and uranium was found in his bones.
Meanwhile, Energy Department officials were conducting their own investigation, at Harding's request. After 18 months and a two-day visit to Paducah, the department concluded that Harding's illnesses were more likely caused by smoking and by the fact he "frequently ate country ham," according to the 1981 report. Based on computer modeling, the report's writers said the radiation exposures at Paducah were not sufficient to cause illnesses.
"The presence of thick dust in the air which Mr. Harding stated occurred . . . is not consistent with the mode of operation," the report said.
The department's findings are now contradicted in court documents and interviews with current and former workers who also describe high exposures to uranium dust in the plant. Workers say the dust clung to their hair and skin and even contaminated the food they ate.
Whether the new evidence from whistleblowers will ultimately vindicate Harding is unclear. If it does, it will provide little consolation for his widow, Clara, who lost both a husband and the financial security that was supposed to see her into twilight years.
Clara Harding sold her house and moved to a small duplex on the outskirts of town. She continued to fight for the pension in court for several years before finally settling the case for $12,000.
For her, the battle was clearly over from the first hearing, when Harding and her lawyer arrived in court to find a phalanx of attorneys and experts from the plant and the Energy Department representing the other side.
"There were 14 of them and only two of us," she remembered. "So that was pretty much that."