Ailing DOE Workers Struggle for Compensation, LANL Petition Granted
The Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health delivered a mixed message to ailing workers from nuclear weapons facilities. The board approved a petition which could ease the way for hundreds of sick workers from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and their survivors to receive compensation and health care, but rejected the majority of a similar petition from Rocky Flats employees.
Workers sick from radiation exposure are eligible for compensation and medical coverage under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. However, the act requires claimants to prove the link between their illness and occupation following detailed guidelines, which are difficult for ailing workers and their survivors to meet. Groups of workers can petition the advisory board to receive automatic compensation without proving how much radiation they were exposed to or the cause of their cancer. These workers are given Special Exposure Cohort (SEC) status.
The board granted SEC status to workers at LANL who developed certain cancers after having been employed for at least 250 days in certain technical areas between March of 1943 and December of 1975. Status was granted because the board determined that it is impossible to reconstruct radiation doses received internally during the early years of LANL's existence before reliable detection methods had been developed.
The SEC will aid 400 to 600 ailing workers from LANL in receiving up to $150,000 in payments and medical coverage. Survivors are eligible for the payments. The petition was brought forward by Harriet Ruiz, widow of Albuquerque State Representative Ray Ruiz. Representative Ruiz was exposed to harmful doses of radiation while working at LANL and died of lung cancer in 2004.
Mrs. Ruiz said, "I made a promise to my husband to continue his fight for just compensation for [ailing workers]. This SEC is a first step in fulfilling not only my promise to Ray, but the government's promise to these sick workers." New Mexico Representative Tom Udall and Senator Jeff Bingaman have been working with Mrs. Ruiz to bring her petition forward.
At the same time, the board rejected much of the petition from former Rocky Flats workers. Rocky Flats, located outside of Denver, Colorado, manufactured about 70,000 plutonium pits from 1952 to 1989. A plutonium pit is the core or trigger of a nuclear bomb. Rocky Flats was closed after being investigated by the FBI for Environmental Crimes. The petition, drafted by former employee Jennifer Thompson, sought compensation and medical coverage for all Rocky Flats workers who have one of 22 cancers on the basis that the facility did not keep adequate nor accurate records. However, the board approved only workers between the years of 1952 and 1958 who were exposed to neutron radiation. They delayed until June a decision for three additional groups, largely of people who worked before 1970.
Colorado's governor and entire congressional delegation united in asking the board to approve automatic compensation for all former Rocky Flats employees with cancer. Senator Ken Salazar said the board was so focused on whether a valid dose can be calculated, that it "totally lost focus on the other essential purpose of the law: timely compensation."