Workers, families tell stories, hope for help
By Joe Walker email@example.com
Craig, a Mayfield resident, worked from January 1951 to May 1955 for F.H. McGraw and Co., which built the plant to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel. As personnel manager, he helped hire many of the roughly 22,000 tradesmen and went "from corner to corner" of the 750-acre facility to help ease frequent labor disputes.
Yet the four-year stint remained a distant memory well after his bout with cancer, even after Congress passed legislation in 2000 to compensate people sickened from working at the plant.
Like many, he assumed the law, effective last July 1, was limited to primary plant workers.
A few months ago, his son, Berry Craig III, a Paducah Community College teacher, interviewed Stuart Tolar, director of the local Energy Employees Compensation Resource Center, for a show on the college's community access television channel. The younger Craig learned that McGraw workers also were eligible for help, and told his dad.
"I first thought he was pulling my leg," Craig Jr. said. "It had been so long ago."
At his son's urging, Craig filed a claim at the center off Blandville Road near the college. If approved, he will receive $150,000 and medical benefits. His cancer is one of 22 types of malignancies the law presumes to have been caused by radiation exposure from working at the Paducah plant or two closed sister plants in Ohio and Tennessee.
"God knows I could use the money," said Craig, a 78-year-old retiree whose wife is ill. "I'll be grateful if something happens, and if it doesn't, it just doesn't."
Since the Paducah center opened last fall, it has processed 1,686 claims related to the enrichment plant and paid 246 claims totaling nearly $37 million. But the program probably "has just scratched the surface" of an estimated 10,000 current and former plant workers and perhaps another 30,000 contractors and subcontractors during the plant's 50-year history, Tolar said.
"One out of four people has cancer, or will have," he said. "So you can see the magnitude. And this is an entitlement program, which means the money will continue unless the government goes broke or Congress repeals the law."
Tolar said Craig is a good example of the many indirect plant workers, including many union tradesmen, who might qualify for benefits.
Gary Seay, business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Paducah, said earlier that about 175 union electricians were involved in an upgrade at the plant in the 1970s. He said he knew of 40 to 50 IBEW members who died of cancer after having worked there.
"A misconception is that you had to work there a long time or all the time," Tolar said. "Another misconception is that you had to work for a primary contractor like Union Carbide and Martin Marietta. I would say one of the main problems is, people just doubt they're going to get anything."
Anita Bean, 82, Paducah, had plenty of doubts. She developed breast cancer in the late 1970s while her husband, Arvil, was dying of acute leukemia. Both started at the plant in 1952; she quit after five years, and he spent 24 years there as a welder and machinist in some heavily contaminated areas.
Like most plant employees during the secretive Cold War era, Arvil Bean told his wife little about how he spent his days. He was 64 when the leukemia killed him in January 1978.
"He started having problems in 1966, passing blood through his kidneys, but I didn't know it," she said. "I don't think any of the workers had any idea what was happening to them."
Anita Bean joined a $10 billion federal lawsuit against former plant operators, then backed out to file a compensation claim. Like others who got paid, she had to sign a form saying the money settled her health claims. She said the idea of a lump sum and medical benefits outweighed the risk of not getting paid if the lawsuit failed.
The Department of Labor sent Bean checks both for herself and her husband because their cancers qualified. She shared the money with her grown children and climbed out of debt for the first time in 24 years.
"You can't bring anybody back, and you can't pay anybody enough for losing a loved one," Bean said. "But I'm not bitter. You have to move on."
James Wilkerson, 71, of South Fulton, Tenn., received $150,000 because of having lung cancer, although he was a longtime smoker until a few years ago. Starting in 1953, he worked at the plant for 37 years, some in highly contaminated areas.
"I smoked for 50 years and didn't think they were going to pay me, and wouldn't have expected them to," Wilkerson said. "Then I found out that smoking didn't have anything to do with whether I qualified for the money."
Tiny, malignant nodules showed up in his lung in August during the last of three CT scans offered free by the Department of Energy to current and former plant workers. The program, overseen by the plant energy workers' union, also offers free physicals and other services.
"I really felt super and didn't think I needed the CT scan, but it turned out that I did, and I'm grateful for the program. It's been a lifesaver for me," Wilkerson said. "The compensation was not nearly as important as finding the cancer, but you don't look a gift horse in the mouth."
The scan, designed for early detection of lung cancer, is far better than a chest X-ray, said Philip Foley, a plant union official and coordinator for the worker health screening program. He said more than 1,400 physicals have been given.
"I think probably the (compensation) law is narrower in scope than it should be, but a year and a half ago, there wasn't anybody receiving anything," he said. "Is the amount enough for your health? No, but you can't put a monetary value on your health."
Former plant worker Don Throgmorton is circulating a petition trying to get Congress to expand the law to give presumptive benefits to people exposed to heavy metals and chemicals. He has received little encouragement from the Kentucky delegation, which had difficulty getting the law passed.
Throgmorton has qualified for free monitoring for beryllium sensitivity and has filed a claim, but conflicting test results cloud his chances of collecting.
"Iíve talked to a lot of people who have cancer, but itís not the right type of cancer because it isnít on the compensation list," Throgmorton said. "We want (lawmakers) to help people who are sick, period, from working at the plant.
Tolar said he also would like to see the law expanded but noted that people who have unlisted illnesses should file claims. A worker can collect state workers' compensation benefits if a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) medical panel determines by exposure reconstruction that an illness was probably caused by working in certain areas of the plant known to be unsafe, he said.
Tolar said the newer NIOSH process also applies to current and former workers of the Honeywell (formerly Allied Signal) plant in Metropolis, Ill., which makes raw material for the Paducah plant. Of 80 claims filed on behalf of Honeywell workers, 15 have been referred to NIOSH. The institute has 169 claims from the Paducah plant.
Although nothing has been paid, NIOSH was not allowed to act on the claims until April 1, when final rules went into effect, Tolar said.
Foley thinks NIOSH-related claims will be paid for Honeywell and Paducah plant workers because the law says a qualifying disease is one "as likely as not" to have been caused by plant exposure. The law requires DOE and operators of its facilities not to contest validated claims.
"I think there's a misconception that if I don't have a listed disease, I won't get paid," he said. "That's not true in the broadest sense. 'As likely as not' is a far cry from having to prove something beyond a shadow of a doubt."
Contact the resource center at 534-0599 or toll-free, 866-534-0599, for more information.