Nuclear Workers Win; Their Health Still Loses : Fernald, Ohio: A judge is to hold fairness hearing Tuesday on a proposed $20-million settlement for former employees of a uranium-processing plant. But the settlement comes too late for some.
David Chalk worked in secrecy for decades, helping the government process uranium for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. That conflict is over, but he feels he’s still paying the price--with his health.
Chalk believes the bone cancer that ravaged his left upper arm and required 30 cobalt treatments is tied to radiation exposure, although he has never been able to prove it.
Now, at 64, a decade after heart trouble forced him to retire, he may be compensated by the government--not for physical injury, but for emotional distress.
To him, there’s little to celebrate.
“This ain’t going to bring your health back,” he says, his raspy voice trailing off in frustration. “Even if you got a million dollars, it won’t do that. And mine is shot.”
For some there is rancor, for others relief as another chapter comes to a close in the nation’s troubled nuclear history.
After a 4 1/2-year legal struggle, a federal judge in Cincinnati will hold a hearing Tuesday on a proposed settlement for workers of the Feed Materials Production Center at Fernald.
This tentative $20-million agreement is believed the first time the government has agreed to pay a group of former workers at a nuclear weapons plant for emotional distress, including fears of increased risk of cancer.
And, although admitting no wrongdoing, the government also will pick up the tab for medical monitoring, or annual physicals, for those people as long as they live: An initial $5 million of the total will be set aside to cover them.
“The government has finally come to the conclusion that there has to be resolution,” said Stanley Chesley, a prominent Cincinnati attorney who represented the Fernald employees in the class-action suit. “It’s time to get straight with the American worker.”
But former workers at the Ohio plant, which closed in 1989, are divided about how much they really won.
“It was a psychological victory for me that we got something. We did count,” said Martha Adams, one of seven people representing thousands of workers in the suit, which was settled this summer in the middle of trial.
“I feel it’s fair,” said James Johnson, another of the seven named plaintiffs. “As citizens, we don’t need to bankrupt the government.”
But others who are sick or alarmed by studies suggesting former plant workers had higher cancer rates and shorter life spans are disappointed.
“I look back at my life at Fernald and it just makes you want to break down and cry, knowing what you’ve been exposed to all those years,” lamented Floyd Grubb, who said he was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1986. “The government got what they wanted during the Cold War. Now, they’ve turned their backs on us.”
And Jim Dorton, another of the seven representatives, says the case increased his anxiety because he saw his medical records and learned more about the medical fate of co-workers.
“What have I gained? Nothing,” he declared. “This fight has caused me much grief. . . . It’s not worth the little bit of money that’s going to be there.”
A judge still must approve the settlement after Tuesday’s fairness hearing, in which 16 opponents, including one worker who gathered about 170 signatures, are set to speak. A final decision will come later.
Workers’ attorneys insist the case was not about huge awards but about changing policy, which was accomplished: The agreement removes major obstacles in collecting worker compensation.
Still, the financial conclusion is ironic: Defense lawyers stand to collect more than those workers who contend their lives have been damaged.
After legal and other fees are deducted, the Fernald group probably will divvy up $8 million to $9 million--compared with more than $15 million the Energy Department acknowledges it spent on lawyers hired by the contractor to fight workers.
“Who’s the winner here?” Dorton said. “We have sued ourselves and you and our fellow countrymen.”
In fact, the Energy Department says it has spent $70 million on legal fees to defend nuclear plant contractors over the last five years, an issue that prompted a recent Capitol Hill hearing and agency reforms.
In this suit, National Lead of Ohio Inc., which managed the plant until 1985, and its parent company, National Lead Industries Inc., were accused of knowingly exposing workers and subcontractors to excessive, even deadly, levels of radiation--then concealing the health risks.
It is the second big Fernald case. In 1989, the Energy Department reached a $78-million settlement with area residents, who claimed emotional distress as well as lower property values.
The plant, 18 miles northwest of Cincinnati and now called the Fernald Environmental Management Project, processed uranium for nuclear weapons from 1953 until 1987. A 20-year cleanup is under way, estimated to cost billions.
In settling, defense attorney David Bernick said one goal was to stem further legal costs.
“At a certain point, the litigation has got to come to a close,” he said. “There was a desire, in a sense, to do right by the community.”
“It doesn’t say . . . we admit culpability or any increased risk to any radiation-related disease or injury resulting from the operation of the plant,” he added.
And though Bernick said he understands workers’ health anxieties, “I don’t think those concerns are founded in the science.”
Although money was a factor, so was time. Nearly a third of Fernald workers are dead.
Most survivors are in their 60s or 70s and “have health problems and need medical monitoring now,” said Louise Roselle, another attorney for the workers. “They can’t wait four or five years for the legal process to review this.”
At least 30% of 6,400 Fernald employees, widows and subcontractors probably will seek compensation, Roselle said. Their share will depend, in part, on their length of service.
Since this case was not about physical injury, key health questions remain unresolved.
Each side had their experts and numbers.
Roselle contends that in a population the size of Fernald workers, there should be one case of leukemia; instead, there were 16.
One study found Fernald workers died at a median age of 58, five years younger than the U.S. median at the time, and had significantly higher rates of lung, blood, gastrointestinal and lymph cancer.
Those findings upset Dorton, who at 57 said he finds himself racing through household projects. “I feel like I’m rushed,” he said. “I’m going to run out of time.”
But other research contradicted those findings, and Bernick was prepared to present testimony showing no increased incidence of radiation-related illness.
Those who are suffering don’t buy it.
“It’s pretty hard to prove where you got cancer, but there’s no doubt in my mind,” said Chalk, who recalls how his respirator would fall off when he used a jackhammer to dig out sludge from furnaces. “It was like breathing coal dust. I was 21. You didn’t know what danger you were really in.”
Others say they’ve been betrayed by a government that cloaked itself in national security and secrecy.
“Anytime the government says, ‘No, nothing can hurt you,’ who do you believe?,” said Hillery Webb, whose heart problems and rheumatism forced him on disability in 1988.
“If they just gave us insurance and said, ‘Hey, we’re willing to pay your hospital bills, we’re willing to take care of you if you’re sick,’ but they’re not willing to do that,” he said.
Roselle noted that workers still can file private suits. And, she said, they have won major concessions with a change in workers’ compensation.
A three-expert panel will be appointed to examine claims; if it says a worker’s illness is related to radiation exposure, neither the government nor the contractor can challenge it, she said.
In the past, every claim was challenged, Roselle said, with workers and widows facing high-powered lawyers and teams of experts in hearings that frequently dragged on for 10 years. Less than a handful prevailed. Even then, there was little to show.
Herbert Kelly, a 27-year Fernald veteran, waged a seven-year battle to win total permanent disability after exposure to radium, thorium and uranium.
“They ridiculed him . . . and treated him like a dog. It was just terrible,” said his widow, Corrilla. “He fought for so long for so little. . . . It took the life out of that man.”
In June, Herbert Kelly died of cancer at age 65. His case was still on appeal. Now, his widow will not have to start over.
“I would like to see more monetary gain, and I know he would have,” she said. “But I’m tickled to death no one will have to go what he went through.”
Roselle said this settlement goes as far as the law permits in righting wrongs. But she concedes it is no panacea.
“Can we undo history? No,” she said. “In the best of all possible worlds, you’d like to make these men 35 years old and healthy again, but you know I can’t do that.
“When you are going up against the United States government, there aren’t big victories,” she said. “You don’t take huge jumps. You take steps. This is a step.”