The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Tuesday, July 31, 2001

Processing starts today on sick workers' cases

By Joe Walker
LANCE DENNEE/The Sun--Compensation for illness: Energy Employees Compensation Resource Center site manager Stewart Tolar works with Herb Handley of Paducah on his case claim filing at the office in Paducah Monday.

In 1994, two surgeons operated 11-1/2 hours to remove a cancerous tumor wrapped around Paducahan Herb Handley's spinal cord. The ordeal left him paralyzed from the waist down, and it took him six weeks of excruciating rehabilitation to learn to walk again.

On Monday, Handley, 74, added his name to the list of more than 230 former and current nuclear workers in the Paducah area who are seeking compensation for job-related illnesses. The program, overseen by the Department of Labor, marks the first time the federal government has offered $150,000 lump-sum payments for sick workers and their families. Eligible survivors are a spouse or children who were child dependents at the time of the workerís death.

Handley believes his cancer was a form of multiple myeloma, one of the many different cancers listed as qualifying for benefits, which also include future medical expenses.

"I was exposed to just about everything out there," said Handley, referring to his 43 years in maintenance and shop work at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. "Some people ó I hope I'm one ó will get this money, and I feel it's a good thing."

The law, passed last year, formally takes effect today, which also marks the start of claims processing. A regional facility opened last week in Jacksonville, Fla., to process claims.

"We don't know when the checks will be paid," said Stewart Tolar, director of the Paducah resource center. "It certainly would be good if some people did receive them early, and the sooner the better, because some of the people are cautious. Others have high expectations."

In Paducah earlier this year, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said she expected the first checks to be mailed in late summer.

The Paducah center, in the rear of an office building on U.S. 62 next to Milner & Orr Funeral Home, opened July 2 as the first of its type nationwide. Since then, more than 270 workers and relatives have been interviewed, and claims filed for all but about 30 of them, Tolar said.

"Only about 10 percent of claims so far have been for current workers," he said. "The other 90 percent is pretty evenly divided between former workers and survivors of former workers."

Although most claims have been for Paducah plant workers, some have been for workers at the Honeywell (formerly Allied Signal) plant at Metropolis, which makes raw material for the Paducah plant, and at a former facility called the "bird cage" at Fort Campbell, where workers handled highly classified nuclear weapons, Tolar said.

Many claims have been for multiple myeloma, he said, while several others have been for prostate cancer, which is not on the qualification list and is increasingly more common in older men. Two former workers filed claims for breast cancer, which is on the list and rare in men, Tolar said.

"We're not making judgments here whether they'll pay claims. We're merely filing them," he said. "We've had some people say, 'I'm not sick with anything. I just want to make sure my name is in there.'"

Handley, who complimented center workers for their kindness, said five or six men he worked regularly with had cancer, including one who died of a brain tumor, and they all were exposed to radiation, solvents and heavy metals.

Starting when the plant opened in 1952, Handley worked in buildings now known to have contained plutonium and other highly radioactive contaminants. He also worked in four huge buildings in which uranium was enriched, in the machine shop where radioactive equipment was repaired, and in a building where dangerous solvents were used to clean the equipment.

Protective gear was seldom used, and workers did not know they were being exposed to substances like plutonium, he said.

Yet after learning he had cancer, Handley thought little about the cause and returned to work after slowly progressing from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane. He retired in 1995 at age 68 and still has poor balance.

Tolar, a retired plant worker whose career included compensation manager, said six of the center's seven workers have plant experience, which helps them empathize with those seeking claims. The goal of the center is to be as helpful and kind as possible.

Some workers have said their illnesses have affected their dignity, Tolar said. "Some of them are even apologizing for filing claims, and even their survivors say their husband or daddy was proud of what he did there. They view it as a patriotic type thing."

Handley said he and his friends have shared little about their plant experiences through the years because they customarily worked in Cold War secrecy. And despite the risks, the work provided excellent pay and benefits, he said.

"We've lived a good life. It's made us a good living all these years. So we're not going to bad-mouth it too much."