November 18, 1999
Caution reigns in many families
By Joe Walker
People who have spoken out on worker health issues reacted strongly to word of pending legislation to compensate employees who got sick while working at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
Some said offering a $100,000 lump sum to qualifying employees or their families is a good thing. Others who say they distrust the U.S. Department of Energy called the promise too little, too late.
"Do you think that 19 years after my husband died that that's an adequate offer?" asked Clara Harding, widow of former plant worker Joe Harding. "They didn't give him anything."
Harding - who had abdominal cancer, lung disease, skin lesions and bony growths on his joints - died in March 1980 after claiming for years that radiation exposure made him sick. Clara Harding finally received $7,500 in workers' compensation benefits in 1997.
Earlier this year, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson awarded her a medal at a public meeting in which he admitted that past conditions at the plant had harmed workers. Clara Harding said Richardson promised compensation for her husband's death and she expects him to personally meet that commitment.
"Look at all these many years I've had nothing but Social Security," she said. "That ($100,000) won't fit the bill for me, but we'll have to see about that."
Nita Bean Rose - whose father, Charles Arvil Bean, died of acute leukemia in January 1978 at age 54 - said she didn't want to comment on any facet of the settlement until she saw it but added: "It's galling to me that after 21 years of lying about Dad's death, they're finally admitting that exposure at the plant caused it.
"I have the medical papers from Vanderbilt saying the cause of death was irregular radiation. ... It's important to my family that the government is admitting it."
Rose said her family was involved in one of the federal lawsuits that have been filed.
Margaret Perdue, whose husband, Ernest, worked at the plant from 1952 to 1974 and died in 1985 from lung disease, said she is also cooperating in a suit but has refused to allow his body to be exhumed for evidence. Before his death, Ernest Perdue gave Joe Harding a diary of plant experiences that he hoped would help Harding's case, she said
Ernest Perdue, a welder, worked in many at-risk areas of the plant, but past attempts to obtain medical compensation failed, his widow said. She said he suffered from lung damage that he believed was related to workplace exposure but was never diagnosed with cancer.
"If my husband doesn't qualify, then there's none of them that would," Margaret Perdue said. "I'm not mad at anybody, but they just didn't treat us right, that's all. I do think we need to be compensated. We need his pension."
Jim Chesnut, an atomic workers' union local president in the 1970s, said he hopes the compensation package will compel more people to speak out. Having worked in production at the plant from 1952 until his retirement in 1993, he is in good health.
"So many people have been afraid to talk for fear of losing their pensions or retribution, and that's not so," he said. "They were sworn to secrecy in the early days of the plant, and many of them still hold to that."
The Department of Energy's plan, which must be approved by Congress next year, would exclude those compensated directly by DOE from collecting damages in a lawsuit.
Chesnut, who for several months helped coordinate a worker health study, said he has advised dozens of former employees to weigh their options before joining litigation or accepting DOE compensation. He said many plant workers came out of past asbestosis suits with meager settlements after lawyers' expenses and fees, he said.
"Many former workers have called me, and I've suggested they wait until the bill comes out on the floor," Chesnut said. "I think it's good that they're doing this, so I'm advising people to at least keep their options open."
Al Puckett, who worked at the plant from 1952 to 1965, called the compensation plan "good news," yet long overdue. Puckett has alleged for many years that he and other workers were exposed to harmful chemicals and radiation.
Although he has diabetes and suffered a stroke, Puckett has never been told he has cancer and is unsure if his ailments are related to workplace exposure.
"The thing that really bothers me is that I knew guys who died with cancer," he said. "Those guys were killed just the same as if you'd put a gun to their head and pulled the trigger. They didn't tell us we were exposed, and I'm pretty bitter about it, you know."