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Investigators set to meet with Piketon workers |
Probe to determine if plant operations endangered health
Saturday, January 08, 2000
By Jonathan Riskind
WASHINGTON -- Leonard Ramey, a retired uranium-enrichment worker, has lung cancer. He found out a few weeks ago, during a checkup available to many current and former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant employees.
Now Ramey, 80, of Sciotoville, Ohio, is waiting to find out whether the federal government intends to compensate him for contracting an illness he thinks is linked to years of exposure to plutonium, other radioactive materials and toxic chemicals at the plant in Piketon, Ohio.
The health screenings still are in their early stages, but the grim discovery for Ramey and others shows what's at stake in a federal investigation of the toll on workers.
On Monday, investigators from the U.S. Department of Energy will arrive in southern Ohio to begin 11 days of interviews with at least 180 former and current workers and their families.
Those people called a toll-free hot line set up as part of the investigation and have agreed to tell their stories about Cold War-era working conditions at the Piketon plant.
Ramey, who was an "occasional'' smoker, plans to be one of them -- although he's suffering from the effects of chemotherapy for his cancer.
If Ramey is able to speak with investigators, he will tell about being a young worker in the 1950s and 1960s, assigned to remove samples of radioactive material from small canisters sent to Piketon from such places as nuclear submarines.
Ramey said no one ever told him or other workers about the powdery substance contained in the canisters. But judging by the documents that accompanied them, the "grapevine'' was sure plutonium and related radioactive materials were part of the mix.
He removed the samples -- needed to judge the substance's radioactive purity as part of the enrichment process -- by drilling into the canister, then reversing the drill to pick up the powder in the drill sleeve so it could be deposited in a sample jar, Ramey said.
For eight or nine years, he wore virtually no protective gear. It was about 20 years before sophisticated protective equipment was worn by most workers exposed to hazardous materials, he said.
"The company (the now-defunct Goodyear Atomic, which ran the plant until 1986) didn't tell us nothing,'' Ramey said. "I think they were aware of things; they just didn't tell you. But it definitely did a bunch of damage.''
Investigators, entering the final phase of a probe that began last fall, will return next month and in April. By the end of May, a final report on whether past operations at the plant were dangerous to workers' health -- and a look at whether current cleanup operations are safe -- will be submitted to Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, officials said yesterday.
In addition, the team will conduct environmental samplings on and around the 3,700-acre plant grounds and review documents on how the plant has been run since it began enriching uranium for nuclear weapons in 1954.
"Our investigation will determine what has occurred and what were the root causes,'' said Pat Worthington, the head of the department's investigative team.
The probe is similar to one concluding at the Piketon plant's sister facility in Paducah, Ky., said David Michaels, the Energy Department's assistant secretary of environment, safety and health. At Paducah, revelations surfaced in August that unwitting workers from the 1950s through the 1970s were exposed to plutonium-laced uranium and other highly radioactive elements.
The Clinton administration has proposed giving up to $100,000 to all potentially exposed Paducah workers who contracted various cancers and other illnesses.
But Piketon is being evaluated in the context of a nationwide look by the administration at Energy Department nuclear complexes. The National Economic Council is expected to issue a report by the end of March recommending a national policy of how to treat workers who might have illnesses because of past exposures, Michaels said.
Preliminary Piketon findings will be fed into the council's report. But it is too early to say whether Piketon workers will be offered the same compensation package as Paducah workers, Michaels said.
But Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, who represents the area around the Piketon plant, and Ohio Republican Sens. Mike DeWine and George V. Voinovich have vowed to attach Piketon compensation to the bill dealing with Paducah workers.
When Vice President Al Gore called Strickland recently to seek his endorsement for president, Strickland held back. Among Strickland's concerns is that the administration is reluctant to extend the Paducah program to Piketon workers.
"Rather than dragging their feet . . . (the administration) should be enthusiastically advocating to do the right thing,'' Strickland said.
Since news of the Paducah situation broke, The Dispatch has reported that a number of Piketon workers were exposed to plutonium-laced uranium as well.
The contaminated uranium came to both sites as part of a government attempt to recycle spent nuclear fuel so the uranium could be re-enriched and used again.
In addition, former and current workers have told The Dispatch that general working conditions at Piketon for years often exposed people to uranium and hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic chemical used as part of the process of enriching uranium. A number of them, or their widows, think they contracted cancers, lung diseases and other illnesses from workplace exposures.
By the late 1980s, plant conditions began to improve, many workers have said. Operations were handed over to a federal corporation, United States Enrichment Corp., in 1993. The company was privatized in 1998 and now is called USEC.
The plant now enriches only commercial grade uranium for use in nuclear power plants and is regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, considered more stringent on safety issues than the Energy Department.
In a program separate from the Energy Department investigation, thousands of former and current workers at Piketon, Paducah and a former plant in Tennessee are to have their health checked over the next several years. The program so far has screened 736 workers, including about 220 at Piketon. Nearly all have been retirees because money is just now becoming available to test workers still on the job.
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