The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

Cancer victim finally nears settlement in plant exposure

By Joe Walker

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Robert Pierce has always believed that exposure to deadly substances while working at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant robbed him of his health and livelihood. Now the government confirms it.

After nearly four years of claims wrangling, Pierce received a letter Tuesday saying he faces at least a 50-50 chance that his larynx cancer was caused by radiation exposure. He said local U.S. Department of Labor officials told him he is virtually assured of getting a lump-sum payment of $150,000 plus free medical care for the rest of his life.

"It's been a long time coming," said Pierce, 50, of Paducah. "I think it might give some other people some hope."

Filed in July 2001, his claim had been one of about 3,000 backlogged for current and former Paducah plant workers whose illnesses did not readily qualify for compensation under federal law. Because his cancer was not one of the 22 listed as radiation-related, he had to wait nearly four years for scientists to determine if his work probably made him sick.

"They said that between 1975 and 1981, I had several acute uptakes of radiation according to my urinalyses," Pierce said Friday. "It's bittersweet. It's good that I'm going to get compensated, but on the other hand, you wonder what's down the road."

There is no sign that his cancer is back, but he worries about a recurrence.

In 1998, prolonged hoarseness prompted him to see a doctor. Bouts with chemotherapy and radiation killed the malignant cells, but they came back in 2001, forcing surgeons to remove part of his voice box. He now takes in deep breaths to speak in a whisper and regularly undergoes surgery to clear his breathing passages.

Disabled and unable to work, Pierce has repeatedly spoken out for sick nuclear workers at public meetings and in rallies. He plans to attend a town hall gathering at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Robert Cherry Civic Center in which Labor Department officials will talk about a new program to compensate nuclear workers for diseases related to toxic exposure. Similar meetings are set for 2 and 6 p.m. Wednesday.

The new program is designed to streamline the toxic-exposure-claims process. Most of the qualifying claims are expected to be paid after the Labor Department finalizes regulations in May.

The radiation-exposure program, which the Labor Department has run since 2001, has paid more than $175 million to Paducah workers, and about 1,000 more cases have been referred to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to determine if there was a link between exposure and disease.

The expanded law provides for up to $250,000 for each worker exposed to various toxins. Some of the sickest could get as much as $400,000 under both programs.

Pierce said he qualified a year ago for toxic-exposure compensation. Several months later, Congress passed legislation moving the program from the Department of Energy, under which claims backlogged, to the Labor Department. He is now waiting for word on the extent of his disability, which will dictate his level of compensation.

Pierce, who doggedly called and wrote government officials about his case, thanked the local Labor Department claims staffers for their help. His letter came from Larry Elliott, director of NIOSH´s Office of Compensation Analysis and Support in Cincinnati, who had pledged that added staff would work through a backlog of exposure reconstructions such as Pierce's.

"I just want to tell other workers not to give up," Pierce said. "Keep calling. Keep writing. Keep asking questions."

Claims may be filed at the Paducah Energy Employees Compensation Resource Center, 125 Memorial Drive, next to Milner & Orr Funeral Home off Blandville Road. Phone: 534-0599 or toll-free 866-534-0599.