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Iowa nuke workers: Government not living up to promises

March 11, 2010

March 11, 2010

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Below is an article on Iowa workers who are struggling with compensation benefits.  Read the article below, or on the Iowa Independent website.

Former federal employees tangled in red tape of federal compensation program

By LAURA MILLSAPS 3/11/10 5:00 AM

Iowans who got sick working for our nation’s nuclear weapons industry during the Cold War were promised that a federal program would provide them medical benefits and lump sum payments for illnesses associated with their work.

But since its inception only a third of Iowans who have made claims have seen any payment.

Ethelwyn “Bo” Fellinger holds a family picture of herself, her daughter and her late husband, Michael, who died in 2008 of lung failure that has been attributed to his work at the Ames Laboratory (Photo by Deanna Dent, provided courtesy of the Ames Tribune).

The program, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Program Act (EEOICPA), launched in 2001. It was created to provide “timely, uniform, and adequate” compensation to all the nation’s nuclear workers, many of whom were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation and toxic substances while working at Department of Energy sites and contract facilities.

The reality has been anything but, according to frustrated claimants and medical examiners, who say red tape and unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles stand between those who are sick and the benefits they were promised for their years of service. And while legislation to fix the process languishes in the U.S. Senate, workers continue to suffer and often die without receiving compensation.

“It is antithetical to the concept of public health to wait until you have human bodies to do something,” said Dr. Laurence Fuortes, a University of Iowa professor of occupational and environmental health and director of the Former Worker Medical Screening Programs.

Atomic heartland

The Ames Laboratory, affiliated with Iowa State University, was responsible for supplying more than 2 million pounds of uranium for the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government’s program to develop the first atomic bomb. In the decades following World War II, research and experiments with rare earth metals exposed lab workers to radiation, thorium, beryllium, lead and asbestos. Workers responsible for cleaning up and removing thorium processing equipment from the facility in later decades were exposed to residual contamination. In many cases, these employees contracted radiation-induced cancers or respiratory ailments from their exposures.

Out of 687 claims filed thus far by former Ames Laboratory workers, only 243 have resulted in any payment, a little more than a third, and totaling $26.4 million.

The Iowa Ordnance Plant in Burlington was operated by the Atomic Energy Commission and manufactured atomic weapons throughout the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, employing at its peak period in the late 1960s as many as 8,000.

From this former nuclear weapons site, more than 5,553 claims have been filed, with claims paid numbering 1,715, or a little less than a third of all filings, and totaling $173.9 million.

Depending on the nature of their illness, claimants must often qualify under a complex set of standards which may include medical screenings, medical history reviews, and documentation proving length of work history at a site, probable exposures (called “dose reconstruction”) or that work history includes them in a “special exposure cohort” which is supposed to automatically qualify them for coverage in the program. Added into the bureaucratic mix are lists of “accepted” cancers, criteria for determining chronic beryllium disease for those with respiratory illnesses, and reviews to determine the extent of a claimants’ permanent disability and right to compensation.

Dr. Fuortes has worked for years conducting health screenings and processing the medical records of former energy site workers, and his work is used to determine eligibility for the federal program. In the claims process, Fuortes says he is often obligated to prove the same body of medical research regarding occupational lung disease, or the incidence of radiation-induced cancers, over and over again, case by case.

“Diagnostically speaking, medical precedent would help, but they don’t process claims that way,” he said.

Michael Fellinger worked as a graduate student in high energy physics at the Ames Laboratory in 1960s and early 1970s. He produced lab equipment both for the Ames Laboratory and another Department of Energy site, Argonne Laboratories in Illinois.

According to his claim documents, Fellinger was likely exposed to beryllium, known to cause chronic lung disease. He became ill in 1996, and his life rapidly became a downward spiral of lung disease, lung infections and hospitalizations. He contracted esophageal cancer, another illness linked to toxic metals exposure, in 2003. He died of lung failure at age 62 in 2008, and the letter denying his claim arrived on the day of his death.

Fellinger’s case has been denied repeatedly, even though similar cases of chronic lung disease due to beryllium exposure at Ames Lab have been accepted.

“My pointing out similar cases where claims have been accepted doesn’t make a difference. They say ‘we don’t need to take that into consideration,’” Fuortes said.”‘Our system doesn’t require common sense,’ is what they are saying.”

‘Hands on’ work at nuclear sites

Rollie Struss, 78, of Ames, worked at the reactor division at Sandia Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., beginning in 1957. At the same time he also worked at the Nevada Test Site for nuclear weapons. He came to Iowa to work as an engineer at the Ames Laboratory’s reactor division in 1962. He was part of the engineering group that dismantled that lab’s reactor and cleaned up the “Little Ankeny” uranium refining site when the Department of Energy consolidated postwar atomic research and production in the 1970s and 1980s. Struss retired as associate director of the lab in 1996.

Struss estimates his total radiation exposure over his career to be about 10.5 rad (radiation absorbed dose), the same as more than 100 chest X-rays. Except that in his case, the radiation exposure was to his entire body. In the last 15 years he has battled colon and esophageal cancer.

His claim with the EEOICPA has been denied both for his work at Sandia and his work at Ames Laboratory. Guidelines require 250 consecutive days of work at the Nevada Test Site to qualify for compensation, even though radiation levels at the test site after detonation were close to 25 rad/per hour. Research engineers like Struss were often exposed to 1 rad in a single brief visit to the site, and the Atomic Energy Commissions safety guidelines at the time limited exposures to 3 rad per calendar quarter.

His work at Ames Lab doesn’t qualify because he is not considered by the nature of his job as an engineer and associate director to have been at high risk of exposure.

“They don’t understand the working environment we were in. It was hands on,” he said. “We all worked together to get the job done. But this was all written by legislators and lawyers that didn’t understand the science or what we did, or the medical research, and now the administrators have to follow the letter of the law.”

Struss has been pursuing his claim for compensation for five years. Despite his persistence, he said it’s not about the money but the principle.

“I’m not pursuing this from a selfish standpoint but for the sake of the people in this group and what they did,” he said. “This deserves to be addressed. It’s my issue that they keep running people around in circles because of the letter of the law.”

Denial after Denial

Michael Fellinger’s widow, Ethelwyn “Bo” Fellinger, says her late husband Michael’s claim has been appealed and denied so many times she’s lost track of it.

“Partly because I get a letter in the mail and I scan down to the word ‘denied’ and toss it aside,” she said. “Those letters really stress me out. I don’t know what comes next.”

Michael’s claim was denied because time between his exposure and the onset of his illness was deemed too long to prove cause of illness.

“I understand the incidence of lung disease at the Ames Lab site is 100 times the normal occurrence in the general population,” Bo Fellinger said. “At no time has the government ever told me that. But that’s what the medical research says, and they won’t consider that in relation to Michael’s claim. It’s just completely arbitrary.”

Michael Fellinger’s claim is in its third year.

“This should have been settled before Michael died. He should have had that sense of satisfaction,” she said.

If Fellinger gets her settlement, she will share it with her daughter, Deborah.

“She was denied her father when she was still in college,” she said. “He was a tremendous stabilizing influence in her life, and she lost that at a very critical time.”

Legislative correction

Many claimants like these only have one chance left to get their promised medical compensation —  legislative change.

Senate Bill 757, The Charlie Wolf Nuclear Workers Compensation Act, was introduced in March 2009 by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and is awaiting attention in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP). The committee is chaired by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Consideration of the bill remains on hold pending the outcome of a GAO report requested in 2008 by key senators, including Udall and Harkin. The GAO report is expected to be published this month.

Several GAO reports have already been issued in regard to the energy workers program

Fuortes said he was aware of the existence of the legislation and hadn’t read it closely. But he’s convinced legislative force will be required to correct problems in the program.

“The Department of Labor has within its own portfolio the power to change some of these policies administratively, but they haven’t,” Fuortes said. “It took us five years alone just to convince them to accept laryngeal cancer as a radiation induced illness despite overwhelming medical evidence.”

“Inertia truly is the strongest force on earth.”

On Monday: Claimants and legislators both have called for reforms to a bureaucratically flawed program. The Iowa Independent will track the changes made to the program over its nine-year history, and why a major advocacy organization, the Alliance of Nuclear Workers Advocacy Groups, says this hasn’t fixed the problems.