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Lujan’s fight for Los Alamos workers becomes personal battle

January 30, 2012

January 30, 2012

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News & Events

The Republic posted this article January 25th. Click here for original article.

SANTA FE, N.M. ” Amid the uncertainty of what House Speaker Ben Lujan’s Stage 4 lung cancer means for him and his family, one thing is clear in Lujan’s mind: His exposure to asbestos at the Los Alamos National Laboratory from the 1960s to the ’80s is to blame for the dreaded disease.

Lujan said in an interview last week that nothing else makes sense.

“I never was a smoker, and my friend Ray Ruiz also worked up there with me, and he had a similar situation,” Lujan said. “Other than that, I don’t see any other reason for me to have it.”

Ruiz, a former state representative, died in 2004 of lung cancer that he said was caused by his work at LANL.

Both were ironworkers on the Hill, and Lujan said his work involved mixing dry asbestos powder into a wet solution. There was no requirement to wear a face mask or respirator, he said.

The speaker faces a mountainous battle against the disease, which has left him visibly weakened and not running for re-election.

But in that struggle, Lujan is not alone. Many former LANL workers have fought a similar war.

Putting a figure on the number of people with the same condition as Lujan’s is tricky. A LANL spokesman said the lab doesn’t keep that kind of health statistic.

A broader look at overall LANL work-related illness claims, however, shows 10,177 applications for claims have been filed by 3,361 workers as of Jan. 16, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Those claims are for a variety of illnesses and ailments.

The Department of Labor has paid more than $285 million in compensation and medical benefits to LANL workers, according to its website.

Some of those workers have had help filing their claims from the state’s Office of Nuclear Workers’ Advocacy, which Lujan helped fund with a $125,000 appropriation in 2007. The office assists any former or current employee of a site operated by the Department of Energy.

When he pushed for the office, Lujan, who has championed other worker health legislation, said government has a responsibility to help those who worked for the country.

“I believe that it is the duty of the state of New Mexico to advocate and assist nuclear workers who have been exposed to toxic substances, which have adversely affected their bodies, livelihood and quality of life,” he said at the time. “The current system requires lay people to navigate through a difficult bureaucracy.”

Lujan, who was a contract worker on and off at the lab, said he hasn’t given thought to seeking compensation for his illness.

In his announcement about the cancer earlier this week, Lujan said he was “certain” it was caused by exposure to asbestos.

LANL spokesman Kevin Roark said it “would be pure speculation to say anything about a connection between his work here and his current health issues.”

One woman well-versed in the story of former LANL ironworkers who developed lung cancer is Harriet Ruiz, the widow of Ray Ruiz, who worked at the lab in the ’60s and ’70s.

“I believe that it is the duty of the state of New Mexico to advocate and assist nuclear workers who have been exposed to toxic substances, which have adversely affected their bodies, livelihood and quality of life,” he said at the time. “The current system requires lay people to navigate through a difficult bureaucracy.”

Harriet Ruiz sat in the audience when Lujan made his announcement earlier this week and immediately knew why the speaker had invited her, despite the fact that she’s been out of politics since 2007. She had been a representative in the House, filling the spot her husband held in the chamber before he died.

“It totally hit home for me. I was devastated,” she said. “It just broke my heart to see Carmen (Lujan, Ben Lujan’s wife), bless her heart, and the family. I have been there and done that, and it is awful.”

Harriet Ruiz, who pushed for federal legislation that helps compensate workers stricken with cancer, said she’s heard the same story too many times. In her work to get the federal government to more quickly recognize and pay workers whose cancer is connected to their work, she heard countless stories around the country from former Department of Energy workers who are sick.

“It’s the same story over and over again at those DOE sites, and it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “You’d see these little viejitos pulling oxygen tanks behind them, while some of them aren’t that old.”

Loretta Valerio, director of the state’s Nuclear Workers’ Advocacy Office, said the agency has worked with about 500 people on cases, including those that are now closed or resolved. The majority are related to LANL.

“It’s a good program. It has helped a lot of New Mexicans, and it has helped a lot of nuclear workers throughout the country,” she said.

Valerio said the office, which is part of the state’s Environment Department, is the only one of its kind in the country. She gets an average of 100 new clients a year and helps them navigate what can be a challenging maze of paperwork and government requirements.

Depending on the type of illness, the years in which it developed and the paperwork available to document it, workers can receive various levels of compensation — $150,000 in some cases, $250,000 in others and, in some cases, both those amounts.

Along with Lujan, members of the state’s congressional delegation also have fought for those who say they’ve been sickened by work at nuclear facilities.

Sens. Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman were both key supporters of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000, as was then-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson. The act compensates those who have become ill from working at energy facilities.

The senators also are supporting a current measure to set up a panel that will look at whether sick employees are getting the support and help they need from the federal government.

In addition, they are behind a move to expand restitution for workers who were sickened by working in uranium mines or living near atomic weapons test sites by expanding the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

As for Lujan, who first started feeling ill in 2009, he likely won’t work on much more of the legislation he has pushed for in the past.

Instead, he’s spending some of his time at The University of New Mexico Cancer Center, another place he helped fund during his time in office.

For now, he prays something new will come along to wipe out the disease. He has been following developments in medical investigations.

“There’s new technology and products coming out,” he said. “In the area of cancer research, you never know.”