The Columbus Dispatch


Thursday, August 12, 1999
Bob Dreitzler
Dispatch Staff Reporter

PIKETON, Ohio -- Long before his cancerous larynx was removed in 1994, Sam Ray was aware that his job involved radiation exposure hazards.

But five years after retiring from the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant here, he is unsure what he was exposed to.

"We knew about uranium, but we didn't know about all the other contaminants in the system,'' Ray said yesterday.

Since learning this week about possible plutonium contamination at a sister uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, Ky., Ray has wondered about contamination at the Piketon site, 70 miles south of Columbus.

"There has been a lot of conversation about it'' among plant retirees, said Ray, 67. "It is one of the first things they bring up.

"If they had it (plutonium) in Paducah, we know it had to be in our system, because they sent materials up here.''

U.S. Department of Energy officials confirmed yesterday that small amounts of plutonium were mixed with uranium handled at the Piketon plant.

"Even though we knew there were contaminants in some of the material, we never really knew everything involved,'' Ray said, adding that they didn't know about the plutonium.

For years, Ray worked as a production plant operator and as a maintenance mechanic; both jobs involved working around radioactive materials. He said he had a rare form of cancer with only two known causes: an unusual disease and radiation.

Since his 1994 surgery, Ray has spoken with the aid of an electronic device that amplifies voice vibrations. He said he doesn't know if exposure to plutonium or other radioactive material caused his cancer.

"The bad thing is, we find out about these things years later.''

Since March, Ray has been the plant retirees' representative on a committee that helped launch a health-screening program for present and former plant workers.

The Paper, Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers International Union is working with two universities to provide the screenings for present and former Department of Energy workers at plants in Piketon, Paducah and Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The government is paying for the health tests, which began in March. But Mark Lewis, the local union coordinator for the program, said interest has surged since the news about Paducah broke last weekend.

The aim of the tests is to find routine problems that are not job-related and detect patterns of occupation-related illness. Ray said the only pattern detected has been a higher-than-normal rate of hearing loss.

Present and former workers who want more information can page Lewis at 740-289-0493 or call toll-free at 888-241-1199.

Lewis, 45, is a former firefighter and hazardous materials team member at the plant who took a janitorial job after he had a heart attack at age 34.

He said he was exposed at age 21 to contamination while helping contain a leak and wonders whether that contributed to his heart problem.

"We were exposed to a lot of nasty critters. I just didn't know until now that plutonium was one of them.''

Lewis said he's concerned about the plutonium, but like other plant employees, he is waiting for more information.

Herman Potter, the union safety officer, said workers are curious but not unduly concerned. As of yesterday afternoon, he had received four inquiries from union members.

Safety practices and equipment have changed significantly since the plant began operating in the early 1950s, he said.

"Our people are not in a frenzy over this,'' Potter said. "They are more like, 'Just tell us what is going on.' ''

Daniel Minter, union president, said he needs more information before he can determine whether a local problem exists.

Caption: Mark Lewis

This article is © 1999 The Columbus Dispatch