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Piketon workers share their stories |
Sunday, October 31, 1999
By Frank Hinchey
PIKETON, Ohio -- More than 150 southern Ohioans packed a motel conference room yesterday, eager to tell a congressional delegation and federal officials their emotionally charged "horror stories'' of sickness and consequences they say resulted from working with deadly radiation at a uranium-enrichment plant.
The 31/2-hour hearing at the Comfort Inn on Rt. 23 ran long so that 40 of the 50 current and former workers at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant who signed up to speak could give testimony -- often excruciating testimony -- to a panel that included U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, and Republican U.S. Sens. Mike DeWine and George V. Voinovich.
"I think it was a very moving meeting, and it took a lot of courage for them to tell their stories. We could feel their commitment to their country, and their sense of betrayal,'' said Dr. David Michaels, assistant energy secretary for environment, safety and health. "I would like to repay the debt we owe them.''
The Department of Energy is to begin an investigation next month into safety at the plant, focusing on worker exposure, documents and operations. A formal in-depth probe is to begin by mid-January after the department completes a similar investigation at a sister plant in Paducah, Ky.
Among the workers officials heard yesterday was retiree Stanley McNally, 79, a janitor at the Piketon plant who recalled sprinting from a restroom when a siren sounded and running into a "white, solid fog.''
After holding his breath for as long as he could, McNally said, he took several breaths and "It felt like steam going down my throat.'' After a few days, he started to cough up strange material from his lungs that stuck to his fingers. "I couldn't sling the gob of stuff from my fingers,'' he said. After a year, he said, he learned he had colon cancer and underwent an operation. "I don't know how I survived all that. I'm just lucky to be here today.''
Another retiree, Bob Witt, said workers must fight to be heard. Many spoke of repeated bureaucratic rebuffs, hard-fought or denied claims. John Knauf told of one instance in which the local union had to spend $30,000 and go to the U.S. Supreme Court to win a $3,000 claim for one member.
Blame for the situation, Witt said, also has seemed aimed at employees. "The workers caused this terrible problem of contamination; we were instruments of destruction without the knowledge of such,'' Witt said after participating in a walking tour of the plant. "We are just as contaminated as the soil and groundwater we viewed yesterday.''
Anita George, an employee for nearly 23 years in the decontamination unit, said many women have questions about their reproductive health. George said she knows of only one female co- worker in her department who has not had a hysterectomy and other reproductive problems, including miscarriage and infertility.
Terry Adams, 73, said he came to Piketon as an engineer from a similar plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and was told to form a quality-assurance program soon after he arrived because there was not one in place. He quickly discovered that there were 187,000 barrels of lithium hydroxide stored in fiber barrels in a building with a leaking roof. The leaks had caused some of the barrels to leak the chemical into the Scioto River, he said.
Adams said his unit eventually was disbanded, and he was demoted to the maintenance department for telling plant operators "the truth'' about hazardous conditions. "We found a lot of things we didn't like. We had some hair-raising reports because there had been no (previous) documentation.''
The Piketon and Paducah plants are operated by the U.S. Enrichment Corp. The plants provide enriched commercial nuclear fuel to electric utilities.
Yesterday, DeWine, Voinovich and Strickland cited Dispatch stories detailing accounts at Piketon, which has 2,100 workers.
DeWine said he is most troubled by indications that the government knew about the potential risk and was not forthcoming with workers.
He mentioned a memo obtained by The Dispatch from Goodyear Atomic, the plant operator in 1962, telling managers not to reveal "housekeeping problems'' to bargaining-unit employees.
"I have grave concerns about what has happened (here) in the last several decades,'' DeWine said. "The reports we have seen . . . clearly indicate the Department of Energy knew a lot more than we knew they knew, and I think the government is responsible for whatever happened here.''
Voinovich said he is "heartsick that all this time we were trying to keep jobs here (at the plant) we had no idea of the horrible risk of the people working at the facility.''
He said he and DeWine have sent letters to President Clinton and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson urging that the compensation program recommended for Paducah workers be extended to the Piketon plant. Voinovich said he has an assurance from committee chairman Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee to hold hearings on management issues in the Department of Energy.
"I don't doubt there are Piketons in other places in the country where employees never knew whether they were faced with potential health risks,'' Voinovich said. "It seems to me that this government of ours has a moral obligation to flush out more of these sites.''
People seeking information from the Department of Energy on its Health and Workers Compensation Initiative can call, toll-free, 877-447-9756. The Energy Department's Internet site is at http://tis.eh.doe.gov/benefits/.
Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch