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Cold War Patriots event pays tribute to workers sickened by radiation

October 28, 2019

October 28, 2019

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Industry News

ESPAÑOLA — Leonard Maez was only 19 when he was first exposed to radioactive material.

For decades, Maez, now 63, worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a pipe fitter and plumber. The Santa Fe resident was part of a team that climbed into large vats to replace mixing arms that were ground down from swirling a medley of radioactive waste, cement and other materials.

“So we had to dress up like astronauts, get on a ladder, go down there, cut them off and attach new pieces,” Maez said.



At age 42, Maez was diagnosed with leukemia.

And although he says his medical expenses, such as costs for chemotherapy, are covered by his retiree benefit package, he has not received any workers’ compensation from his years of maintenance at the nuclear weapons research facility.

“They didn’t even fill out paperwork to give to you and say, ‘Today you got exposed to 10 million grams,’ or whatever it is. They just said, ‘Well, you’re OK. Go home. See you tomorrow.’ It was just part of the culture at the time. The lab didn’t really want to be held responsible for anything — they still don’t,” Maez said.

Maez, who goes by Leo, was one of a couple of dozen former workers in the nation’s nuclear weapons effort whose jobs involved uranium, plutonium, beryllium or other radioactive or toxic heavy metals and who gathered Thursday in Española for an annual tribute by a national advocacy organization.

The group, Cold War Patriots, is dedicated to honoring “those who have given the ultimate sacrifice” through their work in the nuclear weapons or uranium mining industries, said Chip Chapman, community outreach director.

“And if they succumbed to an illness, then this is our way of paying honor and respect to them for that sacrifice,” Chapman said.

Cold War Patriots also helps people who may be entitled to federal compensation navigate the complicated Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.

Although petitions for compensation are supposed to be evaluated in a timely fashion, a joint investigation by the Santa Fe New Mexican and ProPublica found they can take years to a review.

Since 2004, 269 petitions for such compensation have been filed with the federal government. But only about half have been approved, mostly for those who worked at nuclear sites prior to the 1990s.

Officials from the offices of U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján expressed concern over problems in compensation payouts in letters read to retirees Thursday.

Luján, the assistant House speaker, in July introduced legislation to expand compensation for people who were exposed to radiation while working or living near uranium mines or near nuclear weapons test sites.

The bill includes an official “congressional apology” to people in New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Texas, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nevada, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands who were exposed to radiation from bomb testing.

Evidence from the New Mexico Department of Health found high infant mortality rates in counties downwind of the Trinity Site, where the world’s first nuclear bomb was detonated in 1945.

The federal government has paid out roughly $13 billion in compensation for people exposed to radioactive or toxic materials involved in nuclear research or weapons-making, according to Steven Levin, a policy analyst in the U.S. Department of Labor Office of the Ombudsman. Levin attended Thursday’s event in Española.

Levin said it’s difficult to qualify for compensation through the federal program; the rules are often not on the side of claimants. They have to prove medical conditions were caused or exacerbated by substances they were exposed to while working.

“It’s very difficult to get doctors to render an opinion like that because it’s hard to know what substances people worked with and … there’s a certain language they want to see from the doctor,” Levin said. “If it’s not clear enough, then it gets denied.”

Doctors can’t always pinpoint the precise cause of an illness that could be associated with such work.

For example, Dale Thompson, a former Los Alamos nuclear engineer and president of a laboratory retirees group, four years ago realized he’d lost about half his lung capacity. Thompson attended the ceremony with his oxygen tank.

After learning to arm nuclear weapons as a Navy officer, Thompson worked in nuclear weapons and other research at the lab for roughly 20 years. He said he never smoked a day in his life.

But he regularly worked with uranium, plutonium and beryllium.

“Those are heavy metals. If you decided to have some for lunch, it’d kill you,” he said. “I really had a clean bill of health and didn’t realize this was gonna come about. And they haven’t figured out why.”