Cold war veterans
Friday, December 17, 1999
By TERJE LANGELAND
As a project engineer for the W-88 warhead who worked at both Rocky Flats and Los Alamos National Laboratories, Janet Brown helped build the most advanced weapon in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Today Brown, 42, is on long-term disability, diagnosed with a rare epileptic disorder. She has undergone a temporal lobectomy -- a procedure in which doctors removed a portion of her brain -- but still suffers incurable symptoms that will render her disabled for life, she says.
Like many disease-stricken current and former workers at Rocky Flats and throughout the nation's nuclear-weapons complex, Brown doesn't know what caused her illness. But she suspects it could have been caused by exposure to the myriad radioactive and toxic substances used in making atomic bombs.
In return for her contributions to her country, Brown says the least the government can do is guarantee her health care.
So, along with some 250 fellow nuclear workers and retirees, she came to Arvada Wednesday night to meet with Dr. David Michaels, the U.S. Department of Energy's assistant secretary for health and the environment.
"We are the Cold War warriors," Brown told Michaels. "Please grant us dignity by recognizing the health sacrifices we made, unwittingly, on behalf of our country."
The meeting was part of a series of informal hearings being conducted by Michaels to take testimony from people around the country who think they may have gotten sick from working at nuclear facilities.
Forced after decades of denial to recognize that the government may have made its nuclear workers sick, Congress and the DOE have recently introduced legislation to compensate some workers, mainly those afflicted with chronic beryllium disease.
The goal of Michaels' tour, he said, is to gather evidence to determine whether the current legislation should be expanded to include other illnesses.
Michaels admitted that the DOE hasn't done its job of looking after its Cold War veterans.
"DOE has not been very good in the past about stepping up to the plate," Michaels said. "If we made these people sick, it's our responsibility to take care of them."
At Wednesday night's meeting, some 40 current and former Rocky Flats workers spent a total of four hours testifying. One by one, they told Michaels heart-wrenching stories about their health problems, their fights to have their diseases officially recognized, and their struggles to get care and compensation. Their emotions ranged from fear to anger and disgust.
George Barrie, a 42-year-old former machinist, got choked up as he enumerated his illnesses: gastritis, osteoporosis, cancer, fibromyalgia. Barrie said he inhaled and ingested plutonium and americium during an accident in 1982. He took out a loan to file a workers' compensation claim but lost his case, he said.
Barrie and several others told Michaels it's often futile to file for workers' compensation, because the contractors running Rocky Flats will hire lawyers and medical experts to fight the claims. Some workers said they were harassed and marginalized as hypochondriacs.
"Everything is stacked against us," said Barrie's wife, Terrie.
Ed Peelman, who worked at Rocky Flats for two and a half years, said he hasn't noticed any illness yet but was worried about the future, since symptoms often don't show up for many years. As a machinist, he worked with many dangerous materials under unsafe conditions, he said.
"We practically ate and breathed beryllium," Peelman said. "I just want to let you know that I'm scared to death."
Workers said they would like to see a program that would guarantee all of them regular health screenings, medical treatment and compensation for lost wages due to sickness after Rocky Flats closes, which could happen as early as 2006.
"I believe it is a moral imperative to provide a comprehensive program for all these workers," said David Navarro, vice president of the Rocky Flats steelworkers union.
Retired workers, meanwhile, said they simply wanted to hang onto the health-insurance benefits they'd been told they would have when they left Rocky Flats. They said the main site contractor, Kaiser-Hill, has been trying to reduce their benefits.
"All we want is what was promised to us," said Jim Kelly, a retired steelworker.
Sam Dixion, acting mayor of Westminster, also made a plea on behalf of the retirees.
"Retired workers were given the promise of certain benefits," Dixion said. "If you make a promise, you should keep it."
Many current and former workers urged the DOE to improve safety at the site, so as to minimize future accidents that may cause illnesses.
"A lot of our safety issues out there are mocked," complained Clarence Buchholz, a member of the steelworkers union's safety committee.
Michaels said it was "humbling" to listen to the workers' stories. He promised to take their messages back to Washington, D.C., where they will become part of an official report that will help guide possible future legislation.
LeRoy Moore, a member of the Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board, challenged Michaels to pledge that he would fight to make retired workers' benefits "sacrosanct."
"I will do that," Michaels replied, drawing cheers from the audience.
Still, many of those in attendance said they were skeptical and that the DOE might just be paying lip service to their concerns.
"I've been to many of these events," Buchholz said. "I don't see much happening from them."
Several people also said they were disappointed that only one member of Colorado's congressional delegation showed up and that the one who did, Rep. Mark Udall, left the meeting after just a few minutes to attend his son's basketball game.
"I will continue to fight for all of you," Udall promised as he left.
Peggy Guy of Denver, whose mother died of cancer after working at the Oak Ridge, Tenn., nuclear-weapons factory, said it was difficult to believe the government after all that's happened in the past.
"It is hard to maintain good faith in a government dominated by special interests like those of the nuclear industry, which consistently puts profit before people," Guy said.