Worker fallout

Some sick workers from Rocky Flats are poised to receive compensation quickly, but the majority must wait

  Although the Rocky Flats nuclear facility northwest of Denver began its transformation into a wildlife refuge in 2001, its Cold War history lingers on in hundreds of workers who developed cancer and other illnesses from radiation and chemical exposure. Under a federal program started in 2000 to compensate sick nuclear workers from the Cold War era, roughly 775 Rocky Flats employees – out of 3,500 who have applied – have received payment. But the process of assessing an employee’s past exposure takes time, and many end up dying while they wait. Now, a small group of workers from Rocky Flats have been approved for fast-tracked compensation – but critics say too many others are left behind, still unpaid and fighting with a frustrating bureaucracy.

The Department of Health and Human Services recently approved part of a petition to add a new class of employees to the “special exposure cohort,” a group of workers from nuclear facilities around the country who qualify for expedited compensation if they develop certain types of cancer. Most ill workers seeking compensation must wait while the Department of Labor, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, and the Department of Energy piece together personal information, employment records and data about the facility to reconstruct the worker’s individual dose of radiation or chemical exposure. Normally, an employee only receives compensation if the agencies find that there is a greater than 50 percent chance his or her illness is work-related.

But if the government determines that it doesn’t have the records it needs to estimate the exposure levels of a particular group of workers, those workers are exempted from the dose reconstruction process and added to the expedited group. The agencies prefer to use individual monitoring records to assess workers’ exposure levels, according to Chris Ellison, health communication specialist for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Office of Compensation Analysis and Support. But many of the records are decades old and filed in ways that make them difficult to access. In those cases, adding the workers to the special cohort gives them the benefit of the doubt.

At Rocky Flats, the agencies concluded that the records were adequate for most employees, but a small group did qualify for the special exposure cohort: those workers believed to have been exposed to neutron radiation – a strong form that readily damages human tissue – while working at the Colorado facility between 1952 and 1966. “We’ve taken that proposed class and whittled it down and said here’s what we can’t do,” says Ellison.

While the decision is welcome news for those who meet the government’s parameters, the majority of the facility’s past workforce does not qualify. Excluded workers who become sick will still face the difficult and often lengthy process of parsing out their individual exposure levels in order to seek payment. “It was a good thing that they included the ones they did,” says to Terry Bonds, district director for the United Steel Workers, which supported the original petition to add all Rocky Flats workers to the cohort. “But they are still excluding people who should be covered.”

The dose reconstruction process has many flaws, according to critics like Bond and LeRoy Moore, a consultant working on the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s Nuclear Nexus Program. While the government does give workers a chance to add their own accounts to the mix, the process relies heavily on historical DOE records, many of which are incomplete or inadequate. In some older cases the dosimeters that workers wore to track exposure levels were primitive and inaccurate, and they were not always worn where they would detect the full amount of radiation absorbed by a worker’s organs. In other cases, workers didn’t wear dosimeters at all.

In addition to relying on incomplete records, the compensation program entirely ignores many work-related illnesses, according to Moore. At first glance, using a list of 22 approved cancers seems valid, he says. But some workers have developed strange illnesses, which Moore believes may be the result of multiple exposures to toxic substances. “There is very little known about the combined effect of toxic materials,” he says. “But because these workers don’t fit the standard pattern, they’re left out.”

To date, the federal government has paid more than 150,000 claims nationwide, totaling over $3.2 trillion dollars. The 54,000 of those claimants who reside in Western states have received $976 million. But Bond believes that many more workers, from Rocky Flats and other nuclear facilities, also deserve compensation. “These are people who fought in the Cold War,” he says. “And the government should take care of them.”