Posted: 02/23/2014 12:01:00 AM MST5 comments | Updated: 25 days ago
Laura Schultz started working at Rocky Flats in 1983 and attributes her kidney cancer and lung issues to her time working at the plant. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)
Video: Stories from Colorado’s Rocky Flats Workers
Rocky Flats workers form panel to monitor new compensation program
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Rocky Flats workers no longer must prove cancers are work-related
Before he died, Danny Adkins extracted a promise from his 26-year-old daughter.
"We were sitting in his bedroom. He wanted to die at home," said Yvonne Garrimone. "He was the skeletal remains of who he was before. He grabbed my hand and said: ‘You are owed this compensation. You fight for it. Rocky Flats made me sick. They just want us to die and go away.’ "
Adkins had worked in almost all the Rocky Flats buildings as a metallurgical operator at the nuclear weapons plant, she said. He developed pancreatic cancer around 2001 and died in 2003.
This year, his widow finally qualifies for federal compensation under a new designation of Rocky Flats workers as members of a “Special Exposure Cohort.” It became effective Jan. 11, and last week during a series of meetings in Denver, federal officials explained the change to hundreds of former workers and their survivors.
Yvonne Garrimone’s father, Danny Adkins, started working at Rocky Flats in 1980, and she attributes his pancreatic cancer to his time working at the plant. He died at age 47. Garrimone last week joined former Rocky Flats workers in asking questions about health claims. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)
For Garrimone, the development came after years of hard work and frustration. Adkins had filed a medical claim under a 2000 act compensating poisoned atomic workers. It was denied after a government determination was made that there was only a 46 percent probability his cancer was a work-related illness — under the 50 percent threshold then required.
"My dad’s claim was denied even though four or five of the guys he worked with also had pancreatic cancer," Garrimone said.
The baby boomers’ collective nightmare growing up during the Cold War era was the threat of nuclear death and destruction. For thousands of Coloradans who worked at Rocky Flats, the nightmare always has been real. And it doesn’t end.
The primary work at the Rocky Flats Plant, a 6,500-acre federal reservation 16 miles northwest of Denver, was the manufacture of “triggers” for nuclear warheads, but workers also recycled plutonium from scrap and retired nuclear warheads.
The room where hundreds of them and their survivors gathered last week in Denver was quiet except for an occasional clank and pop-hiss from several portable oxygen tanks. Lung disease is common among them.
Attentive faces — most of them older, many ashen — listened politely to the speakers, a collection of federal officials from the departments of Energy and Labor, as they explained the new benefits.
"Thank you for being here," 71-year-old Jerry Harden said. "What took you so long?"
There was applause, the only outburst from a somber group of Cold War warriors who are more about grim determination than expressing their sorrow or anger.
Twenty-five years after the nuclear weapons plant was raided in 1989 by the FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency for violating environmental laws, the U.S. government lifted some of the burden of proof off the shoulders of these people.
Anthony Abeyta Started working at Rocky Flats in 1972 and has lung health issues, including asthma. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)
"We recognize they were harmed," said Rachel Leiton, director of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. "That’s why we work as hard as we do."
Rocky Flats workers’ new status promises faster processing of claims, which once took three years. It applies only to those with one of 22 types of cancer specified by the government and who worked at least 250 days at the plant between April 1, 1952, and Dec. 31, 1983. Leiton said her division is reviewing 302 previously denied claims that she expects to be paid.
Workers question the exclusion of many cancers, such as prostate, but they mostly question the 1983 cutoff date.
Department of Energy contractor Rockwell International operated the weapons plant until the 1989 raid suspended most operations and landed Rocky Flats on the list of Superfund sites. All production was terminated in 1992. Then there was decommission and demolition — a $7 billion cleanup effort that DOE contractor Kaiser-Hill Co. deemed complete in 2005. By then, most nuclear waste had been carted away or buried on site.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health “is continuing to investigate the period post-1983,” said Stuart Hinnefeld, director of the institute’s Division of Compensation Analysis and Support.
Linda Archuleta started working at Rocky Flats in 1969 and contracted breast cancer. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)
"The dates they’re picking leave out a lot of people," said Stephanie Gray, who worked at Rocky Flats from 1988 to 1995, when she was in her mid-20s. She hasn’t developed cancer but has had surgery to remove a brain cyst.
"It was still nasty there after 1983," Gray said. "After a while, they told us to stop drinking the water or washing our hands. Friends I worked with have had brain tumors and lots of other problems. They could sure use some help."
Still, Rocky Flats workers or their survivors who are members of the new cohort no longer have to reconstruct personal histories of exposure to radioactive elements from DOE records often scattered or lost.
Those who have one of the cancers specified by law no longer have to meet the government standard that it’s more than 50 percent probable that their cancers were caused by exposure to plutonium and other heavy metals and deadly chemicals.
This cohort no longer has to demonstrate permanent impairment or document lost wages.
But all those rules still apply to Rocky Flats workers who have other serious and debilitating illnesses or different service dates.
"Dose reconstruction is a flat-out joke," said Doug Hanson, 66, of Platteville. "I always wore badges — dosimeters. I always turned them in. When I asked for (radiation-exposure records), I was told, ‘No data available.’ I know they covered up so much."
Hanson has a cancer of the blood called multiple myeloma, one of the eligible cancers.
Other qualifying cancers are leukemia, lymphomas, and cancers of the lung, brain, bones, breast, ovary, esophagus, stomach, colon, small intestine, urinary bladder, renal system, bile ducts, gall bladder, salivary gland, pharynx, thyroid, pancreas and liver. Other eligible illnesses under the cohort rules are chronic beryllium disease and chronic silicosis.
Since the passage of the law in 2000 for atomic energy workers, at least 3,555 have come forward asking for help.
More than 4,000 of the Rocky Flats claims for medical compensation — two-thirds of the total processed — have been denied, Leiton said.
Since 2000, 2,347 claimants have received $304 million in compensation and medical benefits.
Compensation under the Special Exposure Cohort is $150,000 per case and coverage of medical expenses incurred since the filing of a claim under the act. Each worker or set of survivors — some with multiple illnesses stemming from various toxic substances — can also file claims for physical impairment and lost wages, but the total compensation cap is $400,000 plus medical costs.
Larry Hankins’ face is as gray as a storm cloud. The 66-year-old Arvada man worked at Rocky Flats as a laborer, handyman, radiation technician and chemical operator during service from 1970 until 2003. He has bladder cancer, and his doctor predicts other cancers will develop. “It’s in my bones,” he said.
The government concluded the radiation absorbed by his body, or “body burden,” is 43.746 roentgen equivalent in man, or REM. It is a large dose. For comparison, the EPA says, a chest X-ray exposes a person to 4 millirems, or 4 one-thousandths of a REM.
When Hankins retired from the plant, he said, employers told him his career exposure had been less than 100 millirems. His dose was more than 400 times that.
"They lied about so many things for so many years out there," Hankins said. "They cut corners in every way they could. There were so many chemicals I handled they didn’t tell me anything about. The whole place was a vicious lie.
"We were expendable. The product had to get out. It’s a legacy I’m ashamed of."
Electa Draper: 303-954-1276, email@example.com or twitter.com/electadraper
For more information on compensation and claims, call the department of labor’s
Read more: Rocky Flats workers’ burden still heavy even with new legal status - The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_25209086/rocky-flats-workers-burden-still-heavy-even-new#ixzz2waRx5iWT
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