Hanford's Nuclear Workers Dying from Radiation Poisoning
October 15, 2014
Lori Jane Gliha & Serene Fang / Al Jazeera America
Former nuclear workers at Hanford hope to receive compensation from the life-threatening illnesses they're suffering as a result of exposure to Hanford's toxic chemicals. Thousands of people in Washington State have applied for medical benefits after working at the contaminated weapons site. About 49 percent of the 26,025 Hanford-related claims have been approved with payouts totaling $723 million as of Oct. 5. But the government wouldn't reveal the average number of times a claimant is denied before being approved.
At Hanford, Sick Nuclear Workers Await Compensation
Lori Jane Gliha & Serene Fang / Al Jazeera America
KENNEWICK, Wash. (October 14, 2014) -- On his tiny farm, Terry Wattenburger admired a new cycle of life emerging in his backyard: A blue-eyed American Paint foal grazed next to its mother and a fuzzy, multicolored chick chirped and hopped through the grass.
The baby animals help the 50-year-old grandfather take his mind off the uncertainty of his own life.
Wattenburger is not the man he used to be. In photographs from a few years back, he looked like a football player, standing 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 220 pounds. However, his years-long battles with cancer and lung disease have taken a toll on his body -- at one point sending his weight plummeting to 106 pounds.
In between congested coughs and persistent sniffling, an achy Wattenburger grabbed his thighs through his loose jeans to outline their skeletal shape. "On this frame, it's hard to put on weight," he said.
Wattenburger insisted his face looked deceivingly healthy due to medication he takes, so he also removed his shirt to reveal a bony upper body with scars where doctors removed his entire stomach a few years earlier. "I have little holes and stuff," he said.
Wattenburger struggles with myasthenia gravis (a neuromuscular disorder), stomach cancer, pneumonia, peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) One doctor emphatically called the combination of cancers "unusual," according to his medical records.
And while he admits his work there was brief -- not quite a full year he estimates -- Wattenburger attributes this array of diseases to his stint as a welding technician, repairman and vendor at Hanford -- a 586-square-mile site where the country's most contaminated nuclear waste is located.
"My immune system is totally compromised," Wattenburger said, grimacing, as he rubbed his feet. Peripheral neuropathy causes him extreme pain that makes his feet feel like they've been left in the snow for too long, he said.
"You know how you feel like, when they're so cold . . . and then somebody would like step on them . . . or hit it with a hammer? That's how it feels. If you ever hit your thumb or your finger with a hammer, that's how it feels," he said.
Wattenburger is among tens of thousands of sick people who have applied for government medical benefits after working at Hanford. Although government records show he was exposed to various substances like arsenic, ammonia, asbestos and cadmium oxide among others, the federal government has not approved his compensation claim, saying he only worked 19 days at the site -- not long enough to have suffered such adverse health conditions.
Wattenburger disputes that assessment of his work record and says many of his records are missing or were not available for consideration by the government.
Congress created the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program in 2001 to help sickened nuclear workers with medical expenses and to compensate them for job-related illnesses. But many say the claims process is designed to make people like Wattenburger give up hope and stop trying.
America Tonight / Al Jazeera America
Nuclear workers say their health suffers long-term fallout (part two)
(October 12, 2014) -- The Hanford site was key to the top-secret Manhattan Project, an atomic bomb-making mission in the 1940s. Scientists used the southeast Washington desert location to develop the world's first nuclear reactor and produce plutonium for the bomb that ended World War II.
The site generated millions of tons of solid waste and hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid waste until the last reactor shut down in 1987. Since that time, the federal government has been working to clean up the contaminated site, with the Department of Energy enlisting thousands of workers to help manage the ongoing cleanup.
One of them was Dale Geer, who loved his job as a nuclear chemical operator. He worked in the "tank farms," ensuring underground containers filled with millions of gallons of nuclear waste were functioning properly.
"It sounded like a reasonable type of job to pursue, so I got involved," he said. "The first thing is to make sure I was taking care of my family," he added, explaining that the pay seemed good.
Now retired after nearly 30 years on the site, Geer is still trying to put his family first, while covering his medical bills. He suffers from toxic encephalopathy -- a degenerative brain disorder caused by exposures to toxins -- and COPD. He said both are caused by his exposure to toxic chemical vapors while working at Hanford.
"I can't get a good breath of air," he told America Tonight of his COPD. "I'm OK if I don't do a bunch of exertion. I can't mow the lawn any more without fear of collapsing."
Geer said it took about five years before he received any benefits for his documented COPD. He's still hoping for benefits related to his toxic encephalopathy claim that was denied in 2013. "They don't want to take care of you," he said. "They want you to die."
Geer said the system can be difficult to navigate, with its own specific jargon. "First, you have to learn [Department of Labor]-speak because . . . when I first put in the claim, I called it toxic heavy metal poisoning, and that was apparently too offensive because they didn't accept that at all," he said.
According to the Department of Labor, claims can be denied if a claimant is unable to establish a causal relationship between job-related exposure to a toxic substance and their medical condition. They may also be denied if they are not able to prove employment or survivorship.
Geer said he has doctors' written opinions stating his medical conditions are linked to his exposures to toxins while working at Hanford.
About 49 percent of the 26,025 Hanford-related claims have been approved for compensation, according to the Department of Labor, with payouts totaling $723 million as of Oct. 5. But the agency wouldn't reveal the average number of times a claimant is denied before being approved.
The Department of Labor also said the average time to issue a final decision on a claim is 166 days. A 2010 Government Accountability Office report, however, found claims took an average of one to three years and for some -- as many as seven. Since that report, the federal agency said in a written statement that it had improved its transparency by conducting "annual accountability reviews" and "spot audits."
"Our desire is to pay all employees or survivors as possible," the statement explained. "In fact, if we are advised that an individual may be at the end stage of life or the condition is terminal, we have special procedures to ensure development and adjudication is expedited and payment is made as quickly as possible if the individual may be eligible."
It added: "Further, we emphasize in training to our employees that the goal is take all possible development actions that could lead toward accepting a claim before any denial is issued."
Benefits Taken Away?
Jerry Ferson, 67, received benefits to help cover some of his medical bills after working at Hanford as a pipe fitter for nearly 30 years.
"I was more worried about radiation than I was anything else," said Ferson, seated in an electric wheelchair on the ramp in front of his home. But Ferson was exposed to "numerous chemicals" throughout his career, medical records show, and was granted compensation for conditions including organic brain dysfunction, restless leg syndrome, toxic encephalopathy, sleep apnea, asthma, chronic solvent disease and neurotoxicity syndrome.
"On the days that his limbs are jerking all over, that's hard for me," said Linda Ferson, his wife. "But the mental aspect of it is the worst. . . . He can't remember how to run the microwave. He can't remember how to turn the oven on."
"I have a tendency of . . . forgetfulness," Ferson said. "I'll start off to go get something down the hall, and I'll forget what it was before I got down the hall."
Ferson has received consistent in-home nursing care since 2011. But when he requested increased care a few months ago, the Labor Department required that he get a second medical opinion on whether in-home health care was necessary at all. The second doctor determined that Ferson didn't have "occupational disease" and didn't require home health care, so he's been without any nursing care since September. Advocates are now fighting on his behalf to have his in-home nursing care reinstated.
Labor Department spokesperson Jesse Lawder wouldn't comment on a specific case, saying only, "Generally speaking, we rely on medical opinions to determine what care is authorized."
"How in the world can they do this?" said Linda Ferson. "They tell us one thing and do something else all the time. And that's really heartbreaking, because they have said they will take care of these guys and they're not."
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