They are America’s Cold War veterans, who forged weapons from a fearsome energy source and bravely endured years of radiation for a country that pledged to take care of them. Instead, government loopholes and evasions are making sure those promises are never kept.
By Mike Kessler, Photography by Marc Piscotty
Click here to find links to the government agencies that oversee and participate in the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA), former Rocky Flats manager and undersecretary of Energy Robert G. Card, and the science of dose reconstruction.
Judy Padilla was the last person you’d have pegged as a bomb builder. Five feet two inches tall with platinum blonde hair, she looked no more threatening than the pearl-white ’75 Beetle that sat in the driveway of her Adams County home. Her idea of profanity was “shoot” and “booger.” But Judy was stubborn, ambitious, and energetic, with the kind of piston-quick spirit that got her up every morning to ring-lead the family circus: She’d make breakfast and bag lunches for her three kids, feed the two lap dogs, and kiss her husband, Charlie, good-bye as he left for another morning shift on the factory floor at AT&T. Later, in the afternoon, Judy would leave for her own job. On her way out of the house, she’d reach for a small hook on the pantry door and grab a baseball-card-size instrument called a dosimeter.
It was 1984, Judy’s second year on the job at the Rocky Flats Plant, the nuclear weapons facility just north of Golden on Highway 93. The communist threat was strong, or so we were told. Russia had troops in Afghanistan and the Berlin Wall stood tall. Production of nuclear weapons
was in full swing, fueled by a defense budget that had swollen to nearly $300 billion.
A Coloradan since she was a teen, Judy was the daughter of an oilman who taught her to work hard and trust her government. She’d voted for Reagan once, and she’d do it again. Earning her keep at a nuclear weapons facility was a point of pride for Judy. Heaven forbid we’d ever need to use a nuclear weapon, but she was happy to be on the team that built it.
And she gladly took $11 an hour at Rocky Flats over the $7 an hour that AT&T had paid her to stand at a table braiding wires. As a metallurgical operator at Rocky Flatsâ€”one of only four women to perform such a taskâ€”she loved being a “blue-collar rat” at the only United States Department of Energy site that manufactured plutonium pits. Heavy as a medicine ball and barely larger than a hockey puck, the pits were the triggers that made the bombs go BOOM!
At the east entrance of the plant, Judy flashed her badge to the guard, aimed the car over a gentle rise, and drove into a low basin that revealed Rocky Flats. The 6,500-acre facility was a small city unto itself. At least 20,000 people had worked there since it was built in 1951; at any given time there could have been 5,000 employees on-site. Main Street bustled with signs of productivity, even on weekends. There was a firehouse, a garage, a medical center, and seven cafeterias. Men and women scurried about on foot and on bicycles and flatbed carts, weaving between clusters of administration trailers and warehouse-size buildings. The “Flats,” as most workers called it, bore a striking resemblance to a thriving Hollywood back lot, except for the fact that so many buildings were decorated with the yellow and black “radioactive” symbol.
Buildings were grouped and numbered according to the work performed within them. Machining was in the 400 complex, for example. Paper pushers were in the 100 area. And radioactive material was typically “processed” in the 300 and 700 buildings; entering them required government “Q” clearance, the highest access granted to civilians. Judy worked in 707.
Through the metal detectors and into the locker room. Judy would change into her DOE-issued socks, underwear, white coveralls, and steel-toed boots. She’d report to her pre-shift meeting for what tended to be an unremarkable recitation of accidents that had occurred on the previous shift, production goals for the week, and new station assignments. But, on at least one morning that spring, as Judy recalls, superiors gave new orders: Stop lollygagging in the glove boxes. Hanging in the glove boxes increases your chances of exposure to ionizing radiation. Many of your radiation counts are getting close to the allowable maximum.
It was an odd set of instructions, to say the least. Reducing time in the glove boxes was nearly impossible. The massive metal-and-glass cubesâ€”sometimes several hundred feet in length and 15 feet tallâ€”housed vital components for the manufacture of bomb triggers. The boxes, which looked like giant space-age fish aquariums, held equipment such as furnaces, melt coils, crucibles, conveyor belts, and that vital, silver-grey ingredient, plutonium 239. The only way to make a plutonium trigger was to approach a glove box, shove your hands and arms into portholes that housed the giant lead-lined rubber gloves, lean against the glass, and start working. Metallurgical operators spent at least five hours of every eight-hour shift in the glove boxesâ€”it was their jobâ€”melting plutonium at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, pouring it into ingots, placing molds on the conveyor belt. Shoot, Judy thought, no one lollygagged in the glove boxes. The message was clear: Work faster, produce more, and don’t let radiation exposure hinder productivity. Judy’s supervisors then made what she remembers as a “strong suggestion”â€”a passive order that undermined one of the fundamental principles of safety. As Judy recently said to me, “I was told to put lead tape over my dosimeter.”
A job at the Flats came with plenty of risks. Hot plutonium could spontaneously combust upon contact with water, and plutonium shavings could do the same when exposed to air. Small fires in the process areas were a matter of course. Gloves would often spring pinhole-size leaks where they attached to the ports, emanating radiation for minutes or hours before alarms would sound. Workers on one shift might have forgotten to decontaminate their gloves after pulling them out of the boxes. Sometimes a glove would come right off its port, instantly “crapping up” a room, and the people in it. They’d strip out of their work clothes, rush to the showers, and “scrub down” with chemical solutions and sharp brushes that rubbed their skin raw. You can’t see, smell, hear, or taste radiation. A potentially hazardous mistake could go undetected for hours, even days. To monitor their radiation exposure, Rocky Flats workers relied on at least one of three instruments: machine-mounted “alpha mats,” which measure alpha particles; handheld Geiger counters operated by radiological control technicians (RCTs); and personal dosimeters.
A dosimeter checked for gamma rays and neutrons; covering a dosimeter with lead tape could cause the device to give an artificially low reading. But even when used correctly dosimeters weren’t fully reliable. For one thing, they had to be in the direct path of radiation. What’s more, dosimeters were fickle, fragile devices; when workers would leave them in the sun or on top of the TV at home, other forms of radiationâ€”less dangerous formsâ€”could often throw off the instrument’s readings.
Some workers willfully ignored safety regulations at the Flats. Overtime hogs would do anything not to “dose out” and be reassigned to another building. Workers with a certain esprit de corps would take their chances in the name of national pride. Others figured they were being looked after. Judy liked the extra cash, but she trusted that when things got too hazardous, her government would do everything to keep her out of harm’s way, especially considering the nature of her work. “We were acutely aware of how important our jobs were for the country,” Judy told me one recent afternoon. “We felt that the country would protect us in return.”
Workers at the Flats referred to each other as “brothers and sisters.” They didn’t just build bombsâ€”they built secrets. In the name of national security, what happened at the Flats stayed at the Flats. Even intimate groups of coworkers kept a muzzle on work chatter. “You could play cards with the same bunch of guys for years and barely even know what they did,” Judy said while we sat at her kitchen table. “You’d say, ‘I’m a welder,’ or ‘He’s a machinist’â€”but that’s about as far as it went.” Information, she explained, was disclosed on a need-to-know basis.
So Judy kept her mouth shut and her hands in the glove box. Still, every time she pressed her breasts against the glass, she couldn’t ignore what she held at arm’s lengthâ€”a manmade element that could decimate entire nations. She was working with the same material that caused the incineration of nearly 70,000 people in Nagasaki. “You lean against the glove box glass,” she said, “and within minutes you can feel the heat.”
Tom Haverty got the order from his foreman one fall afternoon in the early ’90s. It could’ve been ’91 or ’93, but jobs like this were frequent, and today, after so many surgeries and medications, he has trouble fixing them in time. He and a few fellow electrical engineers were instructed to report to a storage room in building 371, one of the facility’s hottest. As was the case since he started at the Flats in 1984, this was a need-to-know assignment: A criticality head, or crit-headâ€”one of several types of radiation-detecting alarmsâ€”in the room needed to be moved.
Crit-head reinstallation was a common enough job in the early ’90s, but the irony never escaped Tom. Just a few years earlier, in 1989, acting on an internal DOE memo that cited “serious contamination” and “patently illegal waste facilities,” the FBI had raided the Rocky Flats site. The 18-day bust made headlines across the country. It was the first time that one federal agency had raided another federal agency. The FBI, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, uncovered a disturbingly high number of environmental and health-safety violationsâ€”everything from poor record keeping to dumping radioactive waste in on-site creeks to dilution of water samples so that plutonium levels would look less drastic. Jon Lipsky, one of the FBI’s lead Flats investigators, recently told me there were “inconsistencies that were punishable under penalty of perjury. The DOE didn’t let anyone know what went on out there.”
The raid put Rocky Flats on the national mapâ€”as a disaster. The EPA declared it a Superfund site, the most severe ranking that an environmentally unsafe area can receive. There was a three-year investigation and a grand jury convened. Rockwell International Corp., the private contractor running Rocky Flats at the time, pleaded guilty to five felony charges and was fined $18.5 million. Conditions at the Flats were so abhorrent that the Feds shut down weapons production and halted waste disposal until the place could get its act together. As Tom recently said, “Rocky Flats was constipated, but no one was allowed to give it an enema.”
In the wake of the raid, waste had piled up at such a rapid rate that crit-heads were increasingly likely to sound, signaling a potential “criticality”â€”a nuclear chain reaction that could cause an explosion and radiate a swath of the Front Range. Although the Flats never experienced a criticality, it was an incessant threat. In addition to the likely human devastation, a criticality would have required the expensive and dangerous decontamination of the building. In the early 1990s, Tom often found himself detailed to criticality head assignments. He would suit up in a pair of thick lead apronsâ€”one for the front, one for the backâ€”and set about moving the alarms away from areas with high levels of radiation. It was a stop-gap measure at best, like moving a smoke detector away from a pile of matches and gasoline.
Life at the Flats satisfied the two sides of Tomâ€”engineering nerd and adrenaline junkie. He told me about his adventures one summer evening as we rode in his Jeep along a dark forest road near his Huerfano County mountain home. Talking in the certain but gravelly voice of a wizened uncle, Tom said that he’d joined the Navy and quickly became a sonar man, fiddling with knobs and dials to his great delight. Tom the risk taker couldn’t get near a small plane without wanting to fly it or jump out of it. Tom the nerd later worked as an electronics technician at NASA back in ’69, when Apollo 11 touched down. It was a milestone in American history, and Tom, then 29 and starting a family, was thrilled to be so close to the action. An electrical engineering gig at the Flats had everything Tom needed. “It was exciting, stimulating work that allowed me to serve my country,” he told me. “I knew there were risks, but as an engineer this was as interesting and important as a job could get.”
Tom worked lots of electrical engineering projects. For one, he recalls, he received a dire warning: You have 90 seconds to complete the job. A radiological control technician explained that the storage room that Tom was about to enter was so contaminated that any more than a minute or two inside was unsafe. Green DOE barrels were stacked and scattered throughout the room. They held every radioactive item that a bomb factory could cook upâ€”machine parts, laundry, glove-box parts, coveralls, remnants from small fires. Tom felt like he was looking at a gaping radioactive wound: “It was one of those times when I’d be in the process area, and I’d look around and think, ‘My God. What have I gotten myself into?'”
Ninety seconds after entering the room, Tom was back out in the hallway, ditching his heavy lead aprons. A few weeks later, following Rocky Flats protocol, he dropped off his dosimeter at the lab for an official reading. He expected the worst. To his surprise, he received an impossible result: “no data available.”
Judy Padilla didn’t like what she saw. Too many of them were sick or dying or dead. Donald Gable died of a brain tumor after nine years working at the Flatsâ€”before he turned 33. Robert Clompton, a process-area worker in his early 40s, died of a brain stem tumor. Less than one percent of breast cancers occur in men, but Judy knew two process-area men who had malignant lumps.
In the late 1980s, Judy changed jobs, from metallurgical operator to a sheet-metal apprentice. The Flats facility newspaper profiled her as the plant’s first “maid of steel.” If a glove box needed to be repaired, she’d fix it. If a drill press needed a handle, she’d report to the machining area with her blowtorch. She was still around thorium, a radioactive element used in her welding equipment. And she spent significant chunks of time in the process areas within close range of plutonium. But, she reasoned, at least she wasn’t standing in front of glove boxes with pinhole leaks or broken sealsâ€”at least she wasn’t handling lavalike plutonium all day, feeling it radiate onto her torso.
Judy’s sheet-metal job coincided with a major milestone in Rocky Flats history: the Cleanup. The Cold War was over, and in the wake of the negative publicity from the FBI raid, production at Rocky Flats remained at a standstill. Cleanup began in 1995, when a company named Kaiser-Hill signed the first of what became a two-part, $7 billion contract to demolish, decontaminate, and get rid of the site once and for all.
Rocky Flats was being destroyed, not built, and the demand for sheet-metal workers dwindled, so Judy trained to become a radiological control tech, or RCT. The tests were dauntingâ€”a three-part series of obscure chemistry and physics and elemental equations that looked like hieroglyphics and sounded like a Star Trek script. She took night courses and studied RCT manuals for dozens of hours each week. “That’s when I found out about the biological effects of what we were exposed to,” she told me. “Unless you were an RCT or a scientist, you didn’t know that stuff.” Almost as soon as she learned the ugly details about radiation exposure, Judy had a routine mammogram that “came back a little funny.” In June 1998, her doctor called her at work with the news: breast cancer.
After a mastectomy Judy felt asymmetrical, vulnerable, incomplete. Her insurance covered the bulk of her medical expenses, but Judy’s condition blindsided the Padillas like the wrecking balls that were knocking down Rocky Flats. Blonde hair fell from Judy’s head as quickly as her body caved in. During chemo, she lost more than 20 pounds and learned to vomit with her pistonlike efficiency. When she wasn’t in class at Metro, Judy’s 19-year-old daughter, Felicia, took care of her, as Judy’s two sons were unable to be on the spot all the time. Judy’s mother had the mornings. Charlie, who by now was driving an RTD bus for $11 an hour, cut his schedule, causing a devastating wage loss. Judy had never been so dependent on others. When she wasn’t throwing up, she was dry heaving. Two days a week of chemo for two weeks, then two weeks off, then repeat. Judy did her big round of chemo on Thursdays, a 45-minute IV drip that she could taste in her mouth the minute it entered her arm, “like when you’re a kid and you suck on a penny.” She endured bouts of blurry vision, lesions in her mouth, and trips to the bathroom when it “felt like I was passing glass,” she said. “I don’t know which is worse, the disease or the cure.”
Eight months after her diagnosis, Judy was still weak and sick. But she’d only received 60 percent sick pay, and there was just one way for her to make the kind of money necessary to support the family. One day in March 1999, she woke up, made a sack lunch, and headed back to work at the Flats.
The cleanup looked messy to Tom Haverty, and to the more than a dozen Rocky Flats veterans and DOE experts I spoke with. Tom felt that the project was moving too fast. His disappointment was exacerbated by the bureaucracy at the Flats. Tom has a sharp, dark wit, but there was a saying around the plant that wiped the smile from his face: “For every person trying to do something at Rocky Flats, there’s 47 others trying to prevent you from doing it, and 51 more yelling at you to do it faster.” The status quo prevailed, and it crushed Tom’s spirit. He tried to distract himself with hobbies and books. He made regular visits to the company shrink. In 2000, Tom decided he’d had enough.
The first five years away from the Flats, Tom road-tripped with his wife, Theresa, visited his children up and down the Front Range, and odd-jobbed around the little mountain getaway he’d finally managed to buy. One morning in November 2005, Tom checked into the emergency room at St. Joe’s in Denver with an agonizing stomachache. He thought his appendix was about to burst. Tom woke up that afternoon to learn that 13 cancerous inches of his colon had been removed. The oncologist, Dr. Thomas Hyde, was sorry to inform him that several small tumors had already begun forming throughout his digestive system. He put Tom on intravenous chemotherapy, but told him not to expect any miracles. In all probability, he said, Tom would be dead inside of six months. Tom and Theresa shopped for a life insurance policy, but his poor health precluded him from coverage.
He got through the chemoâ€”nine months of puking and cloudy-headedness. But a round of tests in November 2006 revealed a tumor behind his bladder and several precancerous nodules on his liver and abdomen. Doctors opened Tom up, did their best to remove the rot from his guts, prescribed a slew of drugs, and told him not to make any big plans for the future. Capecitabine, the peach-colored chemotherapy pill that Tom will swallow by the handful for the rest of his life, is best known for the following side effects: nausea, itchiness, vomiting, fatigue, weight loss, dizziness, memory loss. And one other thing.
“Do you know what diarrhea is?” Tom recently asked me. I was walking next to him as he speed-waddled toward a hospital-lobby men’s room.
“Yes,” I replied. “Of course.”
Tom turned his head, shot me a smile as wide as a mushroom cloud, and said, “No you don’t.”
The sick Rocky Flats veterans arrived by the dozens. They came on foot and in wheelchairs and on walkers, ambling through the conference center of the Westin hotel in Westminster this past May. They wore jeans and chinos and flannels and the occasional breathing apparatus. Some wore T-shirts that read, “Bury Rocky Flats, not the workers.” Judy Padilla was there. Most were well into middle age and craggy-faced, with the calloused, meaty fingers of the blue-collar rats they once were. They had come to askâ€”to begâ€”the government to honor the law that it wrote for them.
The law is called the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, or EEOICPA (pronounced, e-oke-pah). Passed at the tail end of the Clinton Administration, EEOICPA was championed by Colorado Republican Senator Wayne Allard and a long list of legislators from both sides of the aisle, especially those whose constituents had close ties to nuclear weapons production. From page one, EEOICPA sounds less like a legal document and more like a confession. The document begins:
“Since World War II, Federal nuclear activities have been explicitly recognized under Federal law as activities that are ultra-hazardous.”
A few lines down:
“…exposures to radioactive substances…even in small amounts, can cause medical harm. More than two dozen scientific findings have emerged that indicate that certain [nuclear weapons workers] are experiencing increased risks of dying from cancer.”
The law’s preamble acknowledges what people like Judy and Tom and the Rocky Flats veterans gathered at the Westin have believed for years. It read:
“Since the inception of the nuclear weapons program and for several decades afterwards, a large number of nuclear weapons workers at sites of the Department of Energy and at sites of vendors who supplied the Cold War effort were put at risk without their knowledge and consent for reasons that, documents reveal, were driven by fears of adverse publicity, liability, and employee demands for hazardous duty pay…. No other hazardous Federal activity has been permitted to be carried out under such sweeping powers of self-regulation.”
EEOICPA’s purpose is to recognize that nuclear weapons workers with any of 22 kinds of cancers (among them breast, colon, bladder, brain, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) are likely to have gotten their illnesses on the job, and that poor record keeping or gross health-safety negligence make it difficult to know exactly who was exposed, and to what extent. EEOICPA says that former weapons workers who are “at least as likely as not” to have gotten cancer from radiation are entitled to medical benefits and a lump-sum payment of $150,000. The law is an antidote to the legal action that workers might otherwise have to take, at their own expense, if they believe they are entitled to worker’s comp. A hundred and fifty grand’s not exactly pay dirt for people who’ve drained their bank accounts, taken out loans, or gone bankrupt fighting cancer. But, if nothing else, the measure was a gesture of appreciation. EEOICPA let workers believe that the government’s heart was in the right place.
Seven years after the law passed, the crowd of Rocky Flats workers at the Westin saw a government that was heartless. As far as the Flats brothers and sisters were concerned, their piece of star-spangled legislation had been designed with loopholes and engineered to fail them. By now they had learned that EEOICPA was undermined by “dose reconstruction,” a procedure that seemed more black magic than sound science.
Dose reconstruction is the responsibility of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH. To reconstruct a radiation dose, NIOSH digs up whatever it can about a claimantâ€”urinalysis, nasal swab results, medical files, DOE “incident” reports, dosimetry records, and personal histories. And therein lies the problem: Like Judy and Tom, everyone has a story. The more time I spent talking to former Rocky Flats employees, the more anecdotes I heard about faulty dosimeters and dubious orders. Two former government officials insisted that medical records “disappeared” during the 1989 FBI raid. A former administrative assistant says she was ordered to illegally shred workers’ medical records in the 1990s. Some people I spoke to were still shackled by the culture of secrecy; when I’d press them for details, they’d clam up. One man simply quit talking to me the moment I opened my notebook. Despite overwhelming consistencies among workers’ stories of questionable health safety, only a fraction of what they say can be corroborated. It’s their word. None of them had the foresight to build a case history while they were producing bombs, cleaning up an environmental disaster, and tending to their lives. And the government’s dose reconstruction program dismisses almost any anecdote that a worker cannot prove.
When a claimant’s records are missing or incomplete, NIOSH will use “coworker data”â€”records from a colleague who performed a similar job at a similar point in time. NIOSH also refers to a “site profile”â€”a multipage report that the agency has created for some of the 79 weapons facilities in the United States, that summarizes which parts of a site were most radioactive, and when. (Site profiles do not exist for all facilities.) In the end, the hard data get sent to the Department of Labor, plugged into a “matrix,” and tallied to determine a figure known as “probability of causation,” or POC. The POC is the claimant’s final score; it informs Labor if the claimant was “at least as likely as not” to have gotten cancer due to work at a nuclear weapons facility. Claimants with a POC of 50 percent or higher are compensated. Claimants with a POC of 49.99 percent or lower are not.
Judy Padilla applied for compensation in August 2001â€”and waited nearly four years for a response. Her dose reconstruction score was 42.19; she was denied. She appealed the decision to the Department of Labor, explaining that she’d worked around ionizing radiation for the better part of 14 years, and that six of those years were spent chest-to-glove box, handling plutonium. Seven of her remaining eight years, she reminded the DOL, were spent working with thorium-equipped welding gear and completing tasks in the process areas. Like her coworkers, she’d seen or been near more fires and spills and accidentsâ€”some reported, some notâ€”than she could count. She was a healthy, exercising nonsmoker, and two genetic tests showed no history of breast cancer in her family. Judy’s appeal was denied.
Tom Haverty applied in July 2006. DOL still hasn’t issued a decision, but a NIOSH worker recently told him that his prospects weren’t good. Speaking by phone, the representative, Brian, told Tom he couldn’t give specifics, but he indicated that Tom’s score was less than 50. He said that Tom’s final answer from DOL could take another eight months. Tom matter of factly stated that he’d likely be dead by then. Brian delivered news to Tom with the detached aplomb of an airline gate agent telling a passenger that his flight’s been cancelled. It was clear that Brian had done this before.
Nearly 3,000 Rocky Flats workers have applied for compensation under this portion of EEOICPA; only 626, or 20 percent, have been paid. More than 69,000 weapons workers (or their families) across the country have submitted claims; at least one-third of them have been denied. The reason for their denials boils down to the dose reconstruction resultsâ€”meaning they couldn’t prove that they were “at least as likely as not” to have gotten cancer from radiation. They were given the burden of proof.
Larry Elliott oversees NIOSH’s dose reconstruction program, and he defends his agency’s work. “What most people don’t understand is that dose reconstruction is an accepted scientific program to fill data gaps,” he recently told me. “A high percentage of Rocky Flats workers have monitoring records, and NIOSH has those records.” But, he went on, not all people were monitored. “We do not have individual monitoring records for every worker.” He spoke of “unknown primaries” and “upper ranges.” He assured me that dose reconstruction was set up to be as “claimant favorable” as possible.
Outside of NIOSH, it’s tough to find anyone who supports the way the agency applies dose reconstruction. Richard Miller has worked as a senior policy analyst for the D.C. watchdog group Government Accountability Project and as a staff representative for DOE employees. Just last year, testifying before a House Judiciary Subcommittee, he said glove-box workers handling radiation at Rocky Flats (and other sites around the country) “were not adequately shielded for many years…[dosimeter] readings did not necessarily capture the neutron dose from leaky glove boxes, since the badges were not positioned near the parts of the glove box that leaked radiation.” Tom Haverty’s translation: “Radiation can blow up your skirt. It can radiate your skull. We wore dosimeters around our necks, not on our heads.”
Even champions of the EEOICPA law acknowledge that the process of dose reconstruction is debatable. They point out that this particular brand of science was originally modeled to study large, unmonitored populations, like survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who were exposed to a single big blast, or atomic veterans who were involved in early weapons testingâ€”not individuals who were exposed to low levels of radiation over long periods of time.
“When the bill was written, people on the Hill knew that any kind of science was imperfectâ€”the law was even amended a few times to try to address that,” Cindy Blackston, a former Judiciary staffer intimate with EEOICPA, recently told me. “But science is only as good as the perspective of the individual interpreting it. Some people within the system have interpreted the law so that claimants are placed on the defensiveâ€”which is exactly what the law was supposed to remedy. In many cases, the good intentions of EEOICPA have been abandoned.”
In theory, claimants who are rejected have some recourse: They can form a group and petition to be added to the “special exposure cohort” (SEC). If an SEC petition gets the green light, the dose reconstruction process is effectively waived, and claims are more likely to be paid. In other words, legislators wrote a bill knowing that it was flawed, and built in a safety net that acknowledged those hiccups. The SEC isn’t much different than the original law. If a group of cancer victims wants SEC status, NIOSH requires them to do what they failed to accomplish as individual claimants: Prove what cannot be proven.
In 2005, the Rocky Flats steelworkers’ union, Local 8031, filed an SEC petition. NIOSH eventually adjusted the petition such that any eligible Rocky Flats veteran could apply. According to EEOICPA, approval can only be granted by a 12-person, presidentially appointed Advisory Board.
This board spends a good bit of its time traveling city to city for meetings about SEC petitions. And in May it wound up at the Westin in Westminster. The prospects looked grim for Rocky Flats vets: Since EEOICPA became effective in 2001, the board has been frugal about handing out Special Exposure Cohorts. For most of the day, board members talked at length about the vagaries of nuclear science and the legitimacy of dose reconstruction. They stopped a few times to listen as government officials phoned in to plead with themâ€”to insist that the board vote in favor of the Rocky Flats petition. It was a full-court, bipartisan press. Governor Bill Ritter called in. So did Senators Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard, among others. The board members listened with chins in hands and furrowed brows. Everyone in the room perked up when Barack Obama called in and asked that the board give our Cold War veterans a “small measure of justice.”
Public comments started late in the afternoon. The sign-up list was several pages long. Nearly everyoneâ€”even the leather-faced tough guysâ€”couldn’t finish speaking without crying. A security guard named Richard said he never even had a dosimeter. He believed he got cancer from background radiation emanating through a thin, unprotected wall that he sat against. Many of his records were missing, but his claim was denied anyway. Walter, a skinny man with thick glasses, had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He explained that, as his radiation counts got high in the early ’90s, his records somehow went missing. He dealt with NIOSH for five yearsâ€”then they denied him. There were more storiesâ€”of male breast cancer and dosimeters that read “no data available,” of financial strain and bankruptcy and second mortgages taken out to cover medical costs and lost wages. Judy Padilla gave a long and impassioned speech. “As a former nuclear worker at Rocky Flats, I am a Cold War veteran,” she said. “I feel that I sacrificed my health like the soldiers in Iraq are doing. And we got no acknowledgmentâ€”and no ‘thank you’â€”from our government. We don’t even get the courtesy of a flag on our coffins when we die.” Fighting back tears of rage, she told the Advisory Board, “What some of us would give to be in your shoes. You have your health, and all that power! Our lives and peace of mind rest in your hands. We’re like the men on death row waiting for a phone call from the governor.”
When decision time came, board member Michael Gibson gave a short but poignant speech in favor of the petitioners. He cited the workers’ stories of unrecorded exposure, their financial struggles, the fact that they were fighting with the government while fighting to stay alive. “I listened to all the presentations from NIOSH and heard all the stories from the workers,” Gibson later told me. “I weighed both sides and came to the conclusion that these claimants were exposed to radiation in ways that could never be proven.” Gibson, who worked for two decades as an electrician and union officer at the Mound facility in Miamisburg, Ohio, added, “Trying to reconstruct a dose from hard data is difficult enough. Reconstructing a dose with data that’s absent of hard records is somewhat of an art. There were unexpected events that were not set up for monitoring. I know those sorts of things happened because I saw them first-hand when I worked for DOE. The people of Rocky Flats deserve to have this petition approved.”
Another board member proposed partial approval for a sliver of Rocky Flats workers; his suggestion was as convoluted and confusing as EEOICPA and the science of dose reconstruction itself. Even the other board members looked dumbfounded. Yet inexplicably they voted for the cryptic measure, right then and there. The workers cocked their heads and mumbled. The room hummed with the sound of befuddlement and frustration, like a town hall meeting just before the fight scene in a Western. One might have expected the local drunk to stand up in back and start ranting. Confronted with the palpable tension in the room, the board deliberated for several minutes, collectively shrugging its shoulders and appearing to grow as confused and frustrated as the crowd. They decided that they should leave Denver, reconsider the petition, and return some other time for yet another round of deliberations.
A month later in the conference room of the Lakewood Sheraton, the Advisory Board decided that three small groups of workers who were at Rocky Flats before 1970 should be added to the Special Exposure Cohort. The Flats veterans saw it as an empty gesture, noting that by the time the board’s decision is finalized, most of those workers would either be dead or close to dead. Anyone who worked at the Flats between 1970 and 2005 was out of luck: No Special Exposure Cohort. No compensation.
A few days later, I visited Tom Haverty at his mountain home. It was the first of many conversations we had over the summer. We ate dinner and took in the view of the Spanish Peaks. “I’m a Cold War veteran, like a veteran of any other war,” Tom told me. “I didn’t go to Iraq and take a bullet, but I went to Rocky Flats and took a neutron for my country.” Tom and I talked late into the nightâ€”about the culture of secrecy at Rocky Flats, about the various private contractors that managed the site for more than 50 years. We talked about the “sweeping powers of self-regulation” noted in EEOICPA’s preamble, and the half century of oftentimes unsavory management within the Department of Energy nuclear weapons complexâ€”during production, during the FBI investigation, and during the cleanup. And we talked about how the government manages the EEOCIPA program with the same disregard for workers that DOE and its contractors practiced. From past to present, across multiple agencies, the flaws were as incessant as they were systemic. I asked Tom for his take. He paused for a moment, distilled his thoughts, and spoke. It was one of the few times I’d see him without a smile. “That’s a simple question,” he said. “Follow the money.”
After a government sub-contractor, Rockwell International Corp., rendered the Flats a Superfund site, a new government contractor, Kaiser-Hill, was hired to clean it up. In 1995, the Department of Energy estimated that the project would take more than 60 years and cost $37 billion dollars. Once the project was under way, Kaiser-Hill developed more ambitious goals: 10 years, $7 billion. If the company could meet its target, it stood to make considerable cash incentives, paid by the DOE. The faster the job got done, the more Kaiser-Hill stood to earn.
On several occasions, the Department of Energy confronted Kaiser-Hill president Robert G. Card about “programmatic breakdown[s]” regarding health and environmental safety. A July 20, 1998, memo to Card from the DOE’s Office of Enforcement and Investigation notes shoddy work that “led to potential violations of DOE [quality assurance] and radiological protection requirements.” A follow-up memo to Card, in 2000, pointed out the “recurring nature of [safety] deficiencies” and “failures of the Kaiser-Hill Company…to correct quality assurance deficiencies.” The list of previous safety concerns included insufficient storage of radioactive waste. Kaiser-Hill was fined $55,000.
Still the money flowed. One executive secretary told me she hand-delivered a bonus check for $257,000 to Card’s office. If Kaiser-Hill could pull off the cleanup by 2006 as promised, institutionally it stood to make a “target payment” of $340 million. The contractor exceeded expectations. By 2001, Robert G. Card had done such a heck of a job that President Bush plucked him from Kaiser-Hill and appointed him undersecretary of the Department of Energy. While Card was a top man at DOE, the New York Times published a 2002 article called “Questions Raised Over Energy Dept. Official’s Industry Ties.” The story noted that “Mr. Card supervises the Office of Environmental Management, which is in charge of cleaning up nuclear waste sites and manages the contracts of his old companies.” In 2004, Card left the DOE. He’s now working for CH2M Hill, the parent company of Kaiser-Hill.
Card did not respond to multiple e-mail and phone requests to be interviewed, but, a CH2M Hill spokesperson, John Corsi, said that Kaiser-Hill’s management of the cleanup was executed with utmost concern for environmental and worker safety. He noted that Kaiser-Hill’s work was widely recognized with awards from the American Council of Engineering Companies, the American Academy of Environmental Engineers, and the Project Management Institute. Corsi stated the amount of Card’s $257,000 check is incorrect, adding, “It is not appropriate for us to discuss the details of compensation for any employee of the project.” He also pointed out that many of the “spot recognition” bonuses received by Kaiser-Hill employees were the result of outstanding health safety practices. “On our watch it was much safer at Rocky Flats than it was at other times,” he said.
Safety at the Flats has always been a relative term. But nothing is clearer than a bottom line. Pressure is still on the Department of Labor to nip and tuck its budget, including spending on EEOICPA. In late 2005, Shelby Hallmark, the deputy assistant secretary at DOL, sent a memo to the Office of Management and Budget with a five-point plan to reduce spending, or as he put it, “contain growth in the cost of benefits provided by [EEOICPA].” The memo was leaked, and Hallmark denied any intent to see his plan to fruition. But that didn’t matter. The average annual budget for claims under this portion of EEOICPA hovers at a scant $100 million. Over the past six years, DOL has spent $869 million on radiation-induced cancer claims under EEOICPAâ€”a pittance when compared with spending on other government programs, like defense ($432 billion) or homeland security ($32 billion).
What’s more, the Department of Labor allows the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to pay private contractors to perform dose reconstruction. In other words, while the Department of Labor avoids paying millions on claims, people in the private sector are making millions from the government contractsâ€”and from a program that denies payments to sick and dying claimants. The main contractor in charge of dose reconstruction is called Oak Ridge Associated Universities, or ORAU, a Tennessee-based 501(c)(3) that has received financial support and personnel from the Department of Energy for several decades. ORAU and DOE share such a cozy history that it’s difficult to tell them apart. “ORAU was nurtured by the DOE,” one well-placed source, who insisted on anonymity, recently told me. “No, ORAU is the DOE.”
In 2002, not long after EEOICPA passed, NIOSH awarded Oak Ridge Associated Universities a $70 million contract to handle the bulk of its dose reconstruction work. ORAU, in turn, subcontracted some of its work to other firms. It could be a simple enough public-private arrangement, but it could be a conflict of interest. By law, DOE workers are forbidden to perform dose reconstruction, and technically no one at DOE does. But, as New Mexico Congressman Tom Udall pointed out last year to a judiciary subcommittee, an overwhelming number of dose reconstruction team members working for ORAU and its subcontractors built their careers working for the DOE, oftentimes at weapons facilities.
NIOSH requires dose reconstruction workers to fill out a conflict-of-interest form. But consider Roger Falk. Between 1996 and 1998, Falk was responsible for monitoring worker radiation at Rocky Flats, back when Kaiser-Hill was tearing the place down. Falk then went to work for ORAU, where he was partly responsible for creating the Rocky Flats site profile, the document that’s considered the bible by dose reconstruction team members.
“When a site profile is put together by someone who worked at that very site, the accounts of workers are not given equal weight,” Advisory Board member Michael Gibson told me. “It’s a situation where these people from DOE have found a second life [at ORAU]. It’s hard for them to criticize their own work, or the work of their colleagues. And those conflicts of interests are not exclusive to Rocky Flats.” ORAU never took Falk off the Rocky Flats project, but it updated the site profile he created. However, critics have noted that the old document and the updated version are virtually identical. Little remains changed besides the signature on the cover sheets.
NIOSH’s Larry Elliott says that former DOE workers are the most qualified to perform dose reconstruction. “The pool of dose reconstruction workers is shallow and narrow,” he said. Indeed, health physics is a niche industry with roots in the weapons industry. But there are also health physicists without such direct ties to the weapons plantsâ€”such as those working for radiological-equipment vendors. As the well-placed source who insisted on anonymity put it, “It’s not that ORAU has the best health physicists; they have the contracts. You could find someone to do a credible job of dose reconstruction who isn’t mired in conflict of interest.” What you’re looking at here, the source said, is a “plug-and-chug gravy train.”
By the end of 2006, ORAU’s $70 million contract to perform dose reconstruction had ballooned to $280 million. That dollar amount, it’s worth noting, would be enough money to pay 1,800 claimants.
Tom Haverty recently called me with some bad news. He’d sat down on the toilet and lost, by his own estimation, a pint and a half of blood. Doctors performed a colonoscopy and found another tumor. When I visited Tom at Good Samaritan in Lafayette, he was groggy from blood loss and four days on an IV. He told me he had three choices, each a slow version of certain death. First was complicated surgery that would require prostate and colon removal. As he put it, “They’d have to scoop out pretty much everything down there,” leaving him to go through life with a colostomy bag. Choice number two was another round of intravenous chemotherapy. Option three: nothing at all. Tom told me, “I’m still deciding between extension of life and quality of life.”
I stayed at Good Samaritan for an hour. Tom told me more stories about Rocky Flats with his usual understated wit. When the room grew quiet, we watched grizzly bears on TV with no volume. A chaplain stopped by, and Tom explained to her why I was in the room. The chaplain asked Tom if he thought his many cancers were the result of his 16 years at a nuclear weapons facility. Tom just smiled. She then asked Tom if he’d like her services. Tom, a Catholic, said yes. The chaplain, a Lutheran, asked if her denomination was a problem. Without so much as a pause, Tom smiled at the chaplain and said, “God doesn’t check your passport.”
It’s all gone now. Buildings 707, 771, 371, all of them. The barrels and the two-seater carts and the glove boxes and the trailers and the guard towers. All of it was deconstructed and demolished. Tens of thousands of cubic yards and containers full of radioactive wasteâ€”the secrets and ghosts
of a bygone era. Some of it was buried out there. Some of it was shipped to New Mexico for deep-earth storage. Contamination levels in the ground are debated, inspected, and may still cause further damage in a few years,
or a few decades. Today, in a twist that seems plausible only in an episode of The Simpsons, Rocky Flats is being turned into a wildlife refuge.
On a recent summer day, Judy Padilla’s husband, Charlie, steered their old Ford Bronco onto a narrow shoulder on Indiana Avenue, where the east entrance to Rocky Flats used to be. The three of us hopped out of the vehicle and took in the viewâ€”Arvada and Broomfield to the east, the foothills to the west. A breeze blew tall grass over barbed wire decorated with old DOE signs. Judy pointed to the spot where the old checkpoint area stood, just before a small hill that concealed the little city of Rocky Flats. We took a walk along the shoulder of the road, past a small creek that once carried contaminated waste off the plant site. She pointed out the old Broomfield Reservoir, which had gotten so crapped up from the Flats that it could no longer be used as a drinking water source.
It was hard to imagine that this tiny woman once made the weapons that threatened to destroy the world. She looked like a little old lady in the making, someone who would chase off hooligans with an umbrella. Eight years after her cancer diagnosis, she finally felt healthy and strong. And nothing about Judy revealed how sick she once was, or so easily could be tomorrow. “I feel like a ticking time bomb,” she said. “I could go off at any minute.”
Mike Kessler is an editor-at-large for 5280. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to find links to the government agencies that oversee and participate in the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA), former Rocky Flats manager and undersecretary of Energy Robert G. Card, and the science of dose reconstruction.