WASHINGTON — More than 8,000 current or former workers of the Department of Energy nuclear site in Aiken, S.C., have received at least $800 million in federal compensation and paid medical expenses for job-related illnesses, Labor Department data show.
The payments under a little-noticed federal program represent a small fraction of the staggering nationwide toll of a nuclear weapons industry born out of the Cold War: More than 104,000 sick workers have received almost $11 billion in compensation and medical expenses.
The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program was created in October 2000 to identify workers who became ill after being unknowingly exposed to hazardous materials at nuclear plants during the Cold War, like the then-named Savannah River Plant of Aiken.
Many former employees of the Savannah River Plant who are sick from, or have died from diseases like cancer, beryllium disease, silicosis, asbestosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are eligible for compensation or medical expenses. In the case of a worker’s death, survivors can file a claim.
“Not until the act was actually in the works back in the late nineties did they finally realize that there was a lot of exposures at these particular Department of Energy sites,” said Rachel Leiton, director of the program. “And that’s why they created the act.”
A 2007 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study of more than 18,000 workers hired from 1950 to 1986 found that more male Savannah River Site workers died from illnesses like pleural cancer and leukemia than expected based on national averages.
But to get up to $400,000 in lump sum payments, and potentially unlimited additional financial assistance for medical bills related to their condition, workers and their families have to wade through a series of complicated laws to determine whether their cancer or other illnesses were caused by their work, and if they can prove it.
Some workers’ wives were not allowed to know what their husbands were doing during the Cold War, making determining exact job responsibilities, and subsequent exposure difficult. Many workers themselves don’t know what they were exposed to during their tenure at the plant.
Finding proof for claims, experts say, can be more difficult than one would expect.
Because the program is still fairly new, many people are finding out they can file for compensation years after the worker’s employment, or even death, said attorney Louise Roselle, who has worked with nuclear facility workers’ cases for years.
Some people are filing claims for former workers who were exposed to radiation at the Savannah River Site almost 50 years ago. Some of those workers have died.
This can lead to issues with seemingly simple requirements, like documentation of a doctor’s diagnosis of cancer. But finding these medical records can be daunting, or impossible, when the hospital has gone out of business, or a health-care provider destroys records more than 20 years old.
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Workers can be accepted to the program through two different types of claims: Part B, enacted in 2000, and Part E, enacted in 2004. A worker can qualify for one or the other, or both.
In the month of October, 11 Part B claims, and 14 Part E claims from the Savannah River Site were paid, according to a data from the Energy Employees Claimant Assistance Project, a nonprofit.
In the past couple of years it has become easier for some from the Savannah River Site to file for claims under Part B, Leiton said. Savannah River Site employees who worked during a specific time period now fall into what is called a Special Exposure Cohort.
Claims that fall into cohort do not have to go through a dose reconstruction, which is a process to estimate a worker’s exposure to radiation. Other claims under part B do.
Roselle said the Special Exposure Cohort has helped tremendously for Savannah River Site workers.
“Without the Special Exposure Cohort it’s very hard to prove that your cancer more likely than not came from this plant,” Roselle said.
The exposure cohort for the Savannah River Site wasn’t designated until 2012. Now, more than 110 new categories have been designated for plants across the U.S., Leiton said.
“If you go to any of these plants around the country,” Roselle said, “they really didn’t keep records that were adequate to reconstruct anyone’s dose.”
Approval under Part E is a different story. Leiton said getting approval can be more difficult than Part B, because there are no assumptions made about exposure, and the burden of proof lies with the person filing.
“We have a lot of tools to help because that burden of proof is pretty difficult,” Leiton said.
The national office of the program has professionals on call to search for additional proof to help with a claim, if the person filing does not have enough information, or can’t get it, Leiton said.
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On average, a little more than half of Savannah River site claims are denied, according to McClatchy’s analysis of Office of Workers’ Compensation data up to Nov. 16.
Workers or their families are often frustrated when they are told they still do not qualify, even after learning the worker may have been exposed to toxic substances, Leiton said.
“The ones that don’t get paid, it’s hard for them to understand,” she said.
For the workers and families Roselle helps, qualifying for the program can be about more than the money.
“What’s important to these workers is that the government recognizes the sacrifices that they made to their health in working there,” she said. “I think they feel that this legislation and this money is a recognition of what they went through.”
©2014 McClatchy Washington Bureau