Nearly 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War’s scars have yet to heal.
Thousands of workers who spent their careers building and maintaining nuclear weapons and reactors in the name of defeating communism now suffer from dozens of diseases linked to the radiation and toxins they faced on a daily basis.
Ken Bailey of Idaho Falls lost his pancreas to cancer in 2008. Today, prescriptions and a blood-sugar monitor and insulin pump that keep him alive govern his life.
“We spent our third anniversary in the hospital,” said Donna Bailey, Ken’s wife of almost five years. “We used to fiesta, and we used to go to the beach. Now we go to Walgreens.”
Ken Bailey, 69, told the Post Register he’s never been a smoker or a drinker. He believes his cancer was caused by exposure to radiation and heavy metals during his 33-year career as an electronic technician at the Idaho National Laboratory site.
But his claims for compensation and medical coverage through federal law have been denied by the U.S. Department of Labor. Late last year, Bailey’s doctor wrote a letter to the Labor Department stating his belief that Bailey’s exposure to radiation and toxins “could be contributing factors to the development of his cancer.”
The agency wrote back that Bailey’s doctor failed to establish “a complete and accurate medical and factual history of how (Bailey’s) pancreatic cancer is related to radiological or toxic substances.”
“I’m just desperate,” Bailey said. “I have no one on my side.”
In 2001, Congress enacted the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, a law designed to provide compensation and medical benefits for the nation’s Cold War nuclear workers.
If they are diagnosed with certain types of cancer, workers who were employed at one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s several dozen “special exposure cohort” facilities are automatically eligible for a $150,000 compensation payment, as well as medical benefits. The INL site is not included in the special exposure cohort.
Workers such as Bailey who were exposed to radiation at noncohort sites must demonstrate at least a 50 percent probability that on-the-job exposure caused their illnesses. If they or their survivors fail to meet that standard, their claims are rejected.
To determine eligibility, the Labor Department relies on the services of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which reconstructs workers’ cumulative radiation doses.
The path to compensation is easier for workers who suffer from illnesses linked to toxic exposure. They need only show that toxins were a significant factor in causing, aggravating or contributing to their condition.
Since the compensation program went into effect, only about 13 percent of claims filed with the Department of Labor by INL site workers have resulted in compensation payments.
Nationwide, the approval rate is about 30 percent.
Repeated efforts to contact representatives for the Labor Department were unsuccessful.
Anne Block, a former claims examiner for the compensation program’s Seattle office, said NIOSH spends more money reconstructing radiation doses than the Labor Department pays out in compensation based on the institute’s work. Further complicating the dose-reconstruction process is the fact that hundreds of workers’ records are incomplete because they were lost or poorly kept by the DOE, according to government reports.
Even when claims are approved, they often take years to process. Sandy Sase said her father, Floyd Snoderly, who worked as a pipe-fitter on the INL site in the early 1950s, died waiting for the Labor Department to approve his claim. Snoderly’s radiation-based compensation was subsequently approved, but his claim for toxin-related impairment compensation expired with his death.
Sase said her experience with the Labor Department led her to believe the agency willfully obstructed her father’s claims.
“It’s pretty heinous. It’s inexcusable,” she said. “In my opinion, they’re just sitting there waiting for these people to die off.”
Sase is not alone in her suspicion.
Some advocates for nuclear workers complain that the compensation process is so complicated, lengthy and difficult to navigate that it discourages former workers and their survivors from filing new claims. Others openly question whether the federal government is conspiring to delay and block their claims.
“It’s an adversarial process,” said Mary Burket, whose father worked at the INL site from 1958 to 1961 and died in 1995 after suffering from respiratory disease and dozens of strokes and heart attacks. “It’s really to make us go away – sweep us under the carpet.”
Block blamed the George W. Bush administration for fostering a culture within the claims office that encourages denials.
Shelby Hallmark, director of the Labor Department’s nuclear worker compensation program since 2004, testified before Congress in March 2006 that “cost containment is not part of any strategy or involvement that the Department of Labor has had in (the compensation) process.”
Under President Barack Obama’s labor secretary, Hilda Solis, the agency’s treatment of nuclear workers and their compensation claims hasn’t improved much, Block said. As in the Bush years, she said, workers seeking toxin-related compensation and benefits are often required to meet the 50 percent probability standard that should only be applied to radiation cases.
Block said another Labor Department policy left over from her years as a claims examiner dictates that the agency shelve any case older than 350 days until the government allots money to pay examiners overtime wages to process it.
A GAO report released this month stopped short of accusing the Labor Department of malfeasance, but its subtitle, “Additional Independent Oversight and Transparency Would Improve Program’s Credibility,” speaks for itself.
The GAO report agreed with complaints among many workers and their advocates that the compensation program is, at times, so complex as to be incomprehensible. Bailey said his battles with the program’s bureaucracy have left him feeling overmatched, with no one to help him navigate the process.
As both he and his wife can attest, the golden years are sometimes harder than advertised.
“You retire and you think life’s easy,” he said. “Now I’m writing the biggest reports of my life, trying to do research at a graduate-college level.”