PIKETON — Powerful as his words are, it’s not just what Sam Ray says that catches the attention of people from Appalachian Ohio to Capitol Hill. It’s how he says it.
When the former atomic worker talks about the on-the-job poisonings that have killed, sickened and maimed many of his friends, he holds to his throat a device called an ElectroLarynx. It’s a voice prosthesis that amplifies the vibrations in his throat into a raspy, robotic monotone.
Surgeons removed Ray’s real larynx in 1994 after the cartilage was attacked by a rare form of bone cancer likely caused by inhaling radioactive substances during his 41 years at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant near Piketon.
“I just said a little prayer,” the 74-year-old lifelong nonsmoker and fitness enthusiast said. “I just asked for the strength to handle it, and then I wasn’t afraid of it. I know it sounds corny.”
Ray recovered, and his dramatic testimony helped persuade Congress in 2000 to allow the nation’s atomic workers for the first time to seek federal compensation for their workplace injuries. But Ray has since had a recurrence of cancer and underwent surgery this summer to remove part of his lung.
Since 2001, the government has handed out about $2.2 billion to Ray and other atomic workers, mostly in $150,000 lump sums. But the program’s progress has been anything but smooth. It’s been marked by bureaucratic delays, conflicts of interest, allegations of shaky science and what some say is an anti-worker bias that denies compensation to deserving claimants, many of them elderly.
Ray, who lives in Lucasville, said the program also thrusts workers into a race against time; many are dying while their compensation claims wend their way through the complicated federal program.
Of the 58,000 applicants nationwide, only about 15 percent have received money or medical benefits. The rest have been turned down, are waiting to have their cases heard, or are struggling to prove their illnesses are workrelated.
“New problems are cropping up every day,” said Richard Miller of the watchdog Government Accountability Project, who lobbied for the program’s creation. “I’m just heartsick about what they’ve done to this program.”
Until 1999, federal Energy officials had a simple response to claims by sick atomic workers: Don’t blame us. The feds denied that workers were sickened at Energy Department facilities such as Piketon, and plant contractors often blocked employees’ bids for state workers’ compensation.
The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000 provides lifetime medical benefits for workers and cash payments to them or their eligible survivors. Under the program, workers at about 300 Energy Department sites can apply for compensation.
But whether they get it depends on a number of factors, including where they worked. At Piketon, the government gives workers the benefit of the doubt, provided they have beryllium disease or any of 22 cancers known to be caused by radiation. Sick workers at Piketon and 10 other facilities across the country get this “special exposure cohort” status, in part because the plants’ records are so scrambled that program officials felt it was impossible to determine whether workers’ illnesses were caused by toxic exposures.
But at most other old government nuclear installations, including The Mound Laboratory in Miamisburg and the Feed Materials Production Center in Fernald, workers have a tougher test. Many of those workers must undergo a time-consuming paperwork process of “dose reconstruction” — comparing an employee’s work and medical history to the plant’s known hazards — to determine if there’s at least a 50 percent probability their cancers are workrelated.
That means a Piketon worker with bone cancer or leukemia has a much easier time getting compensation than a Mound or Fernald worker with the same illness. At Piketon, about 28 percent of the claims have paid out, compared to 15 percent at Fernald and 12 percent at Mound.
Nationally, almost three-quarters of the dose reconstruction claims are rejected, said Larry Elliott, compensation director at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which oversees the process for the Department of Labor.
Elliott said there is a reason for the high rejection rate: Many cancers are not caused by radiation.
“It is not a reparation program,” he said. “If you read the law, you see it’s compensation if it’s shown to be deserved.”
Labor Department officials inherited a backlog of claims when the Energy Department botched a now abolished portion of the program, running up huge administrative costs while providing little help for workers.
“We are very sympathetic to these people who have been exposed to radiation and other toxic conditions, and we want to move as fast as humanly possible to get these cases resolved,” said Shelby Hallmark, director of workers’ compensation for the Labor Department.
Critics say the program puts an insurmountable burden on most Energy workers to prove their illnesses had occupational causes, particularly because many old plant records are missing, incomplete, changed or, some allege, falsified.
Piketon plant guard Jeffrey Walburn and the president of his union local are calling for a criminal investigation, saying worker exposure records being used to decide compensation cases are “irretrievably corrupted” by falsification. Walburn, who has a lung ailment, said plant records his lawyer obtained with a subpoena show that someone changed his recorded exposure reading to zero after he inhaled a noxious gas in a 1994 accident.
Both lawsuits Walburn filed against the Lockheed Martin Corp., parent company of the now-defunct contractor he worked for at Piketon, have been “dismissed as having no merit,” said Gail E. Rymer, Lockheed spokeswoman.
Elliott said plant records were “in some cases modified or changed by DOE.”
“I understand and fully appreciate that these Cold War veterans — their activities were kept in secret and in many cases what they were exposed to was never revealed to them,” he said. “I find that to be deplorable.”
U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said the stories from Piketon workers persuaded him to take a lead role in getting the program started.
“The situation over the years there was horrible,” Voinovich said. “And then the other part that really drove me crazy is they discouraged these people from getting help because they were told that what they were doing was top secret.
“Really it encouraged people not to get help when they were sick.”
One of the biggest mysteries at Piketon is just how many people got sick.
Over the years, radiation and chemical exposures placed more than half of the 10,000 Piketon workers at risk for occupational illnesses, said Dr. Steven Markowitz, director and chief physician of a health screening program for workers at the gaseous diffusion plant. The screenings turned up cases of emphysema, lung cancer, asbestosis, beryllium disease and, he said, “probably two-thirds of the workers have hearing loss.”
A 2001 NIOSH report on the mortality of Piketon workers found no statistically significant increase in cancer deaths compared to the general population. But the researchers cautioned that it studied only dead workers, leaving about 85 percent of the work force out of the study.
The report said many Piketon workers weren’t properly monitored for radiation exposure over the years. In some cases, they weren’t monitored at all.
“They would never tell (workers) much about what (dose) they received,” said Walburn’s attorney, Franklin T. Gerlach of Portsmouth, who has developed a niche practice representing atomic workers. “They had all kinds of gimmicks to show the workers were receiving less exposure than they were actually receiving.”
Arsenic, plutonium and black widow spiders
Inside the cavernous enrichment buildings at the Piketon plant, huge machines ran day and night, forcing uranium hexafluoride gas through filters and separating out the fissionable uranium-235 isotope. Workers at the plant enriched uranium, first for weapons, then for nuclear reactors and nuclear submarines.
“If you haven’t gotten under a kid’s desk lately, it’s because of the workers here,” said Dan Minter, president of United Steelworkers Local 5689 at the Piketon plant, in a reference to 1950s schoolday A-bomb drills. “(They) in no small part have ended the Cold War.”
With about 100 buildings — the three enrichment buildings alone total 93 acres — the plant remains one of the largest industrial facilities in the world. It is owned by the federal government, but was managed by a series of contractors through the years. The now-defunct Goodyear Atomic Corp. ran the plant until 1986, followed by Martin Marietta Energy Services and subsidiaries of its successor, Lockheed Martin Corp. The government privatized enrichment operations in 1998, and USEC Inc. of Bethesda, Md., operated the plant until it closed in 2001.
Goodyear Corp. spokesman Keith Price had no comment on the company’s history at Piketon. Rymer said Lockheed’s now-defunct subsidiaries took safety findings seriously and increased compliance with safety rules. USEC has had an “exemplary” safety record there, said Elizabeth Stuckle, USEC spokeswoman.
Elaine Litten, who worked her way up from a stenographer to a department manager during 25 years at the plant, said she was able to get her master’s degree while working there. During her tenure, from 1974 to 1999, Litten said, the plant maintained rigorous safety practices.
“I never would’ve been able to be where I am (without the plant),” she said. “I don’t care what they say, it has been a godsend to this part of the state. I personally think it’s very safe.”
A massive Energy Department investigation, completed in 2000, documented major health, safety and environmental problems dating back to the plant’s opening in 1954 and continuing through the 1980s and even into the 1990s. Workers handled hazardous chemicals, metals and radioactive substances in a hot, noisy environment. They even encountered infestations of black widow spiders seeking the warmth of enrichment machinery.
Among the hazards: arsenic, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Workers used the solvent trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen, not only to degrease machines, but sometimes to clean oil from their skin. Metal shavings and light bulbs containing beryllium — a dangerous metal — contaminated buildings and sickened workers.
Hundreds of accidental releases of uranium hexafluoride were reported over the years, ranging from “puffs” to thick, caustic clouds that could sear workers’ throats and lungs.
There were hidden dangers, too. Workers didn’t know that uranium oxide, made from used reactor fuel and first brought in for re-enrichment in the 1960s, contained radioactive technetium and plutonium. Instrument mechanics later discovered the technetium inside equipment, describing it as a “dark, gooey sludge” that looked like black tobacco juice. The cancer-causing technetium significantly contaminated their bodies and clothing, investigators said.
The most hazardous duty occurred inside building X-705E, where uranium oxide was converted to uranium hexafluoride. For 21 years, workers there were continuously exposed to airborne radioactive contamination, investigators said. Unable to solve the contamination problems, plant officials closed the building in 1978.
One of the workers in X-705E was Robert Elkins. In 1965, Elkins got a dose of radiation more than three times the allowable limit. Although he wasn’t allowed to work around radiation for the next 20 years, his retirement physical in 1985 revealed his body still contained uranium and technetium.
“Goodyear wouldn’t tell us what it was, or that it would hurt you,” said Elkins, 78, who only learned of the danger after testing positive for radiation. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I was worried I was going to carry that home to my wife and kid.”
Elkins of New Boston suffers from several ailments, including heavy metal poisoning and breathing problems. But he’s been unable to win federal compensation because he cannot prove a connection between his longtime health problems and his exposures to radiation.
Government researchers did offer his wife $500 if she’d turn his body over to them to study once he dies. She turned them down.
“It appears that the government is more interested in what happens to Mr. Elkins after he is dead than what happens to him while he is still alive,” Ray said during his congressional testimony.
Safe enough to eat?
Even when plant policy required protective gear, workers often ignored the rules and managers failed to enforce them, according to the 2000 Energy Department report.
Supervisors even told workers that uranium was safe enough to eat.
“When I went to work out there, there wasn’t much safety,” said James Morrison, 75, of Wheelersburg, who said he heard about the claims that you can eat uranium when he started work there in 1981. “Well, it hurts you — you just don’t know about it.”
Morrison, an electronics technician who calibrated instruments until his retirement in 1994, received $150,000 compensation for lymphoma in 2003, and has since been treated for colon and liver cancer.
Workers told investigators they some times felt management pressure to ignore safety rules to meet production deadlines.
One man told of an illicit practice known as the “midnight rocket.” Because of schedule demands, workers sometimes vented radioactive gas from machines too quickly, releasing “a visible and pungent cloud” of radioactive powder and hydrogen fluoride gas.
Investigators found other problems, too.
Respirators and dust masks at the plant were often in short supply, ill-fitting or inadequate, and in the stifling heat of the production buildings, some workers simply chose not to wear them.
Workers often failed to immediately remove contaminated clothing, and routinely violated rules against eating, drinking and smoking in areas “hot” with radioactivity. In some cases, they said, they didn’t know the areas were contaminated because their supervisors didn’t tell them.
“Nobody knew about or paid any attention to it being hot,” said Phillip “Ab” Woodard, a retired construction worker who spent about 12 years doing jobs at the Piketon plant. Woodard, 79, of West Portsmouth later developed colon cancer and received federal compensation. “I was in all that hot stuff. I couldn’t see it, (so) I wasn’t afraid of it.”
In 1978, safety contractors warned plant managers that one workplace was so contaminated it should be declared a “red zone,” requiring protective clothing and extra shower time.
Managers ignored them and allowed employees to continue working there until the union found out and forced a cleanup in 1980, according to a U.S. Comptroller General report.
Until the 1990s, guards wearing no protective gear often were posted around radioactive hazards, and even had to train in contaminated areas. When accidental releases occurred, guards often responded without adequate respiratory protection.
Charles Yeley, who developed about 50 skin cancer lesions and a lung disease after years as a plant guard, said he never considered the dangers.
“At that time, you just trusted the government,” said Yeley, who received compensation this year. “We were out there wallerin’ around in it (radiation) and I didn’t know a thing.”
Dangerous work continues
Although the Piketon plant closed in 2001, about 1,700 people still work there — cleaning up the environmental mess, maintaining the old, contaminated buildings, and preparing for a proposed uranium enrichment centrifuge plant on the site.
It can still be a dangerous place.
A laborer working for an environmental cleanup subcontractor was badly burned in August 2000 when a chemical he was handling exploded, flinging him backward and igniting his blue jeans, turning them to ash. The man, Guillermo Barrientos, now 47 and living in Findlay, spent a month in the hospital. He is disabled and recently won a $2.95 million settlement of his federal lawsuit against the companies involved, said his attorney, Michael Rourke.
An Energy Department investigation into the explosion found that Barrientos was given no protective clothing, he had to be hosed off because there was no shower nearby, and workers failed to follow emergency response procedures. At first, they even mistakenly told the 911 operator that the accident scene was in Paducah, Ky., home to Piketon’s sister plant.
Accident investigators criticized cleanup contractor Bechtel Jacobs and two subcontractors for lax safety procedures, saying, “This accident and the resulting injuries were preventable.”
The company that Barrientos worked for is defunct, and Bechtel Jacobs was replaced as cleanup contractor in 2005 for reasons unrelated to Barrientos’ accident.
Bechtel Jacobs spokesman Dennis Hill would not comment on the accident, referring a reporter to the Energy Department’s report.
Rod Gossett, who worked for a safety contractor at Piketon, said he wasn’t surprised someone got hurt. Gossett said he warned Bechtel Jacobs that there was no safety oversight in the area where Barrientos was working.
Gossett is one of at least three employees in recent years who filed whistle-blower complaints against subcontractors at Piketon, saying they faced retaliation after reporting safety violations. All three said their warnings were ignored.
“It was production over safety before. It’s still production over safety,” Gossett said.
Gossett and his wife, Sue, were both reinstated to their jobs at Safety & Ecology Corp. after filing whistleblower complaints against the company. Another employee, Phil Borris, won a complaint against a different company for not hiring him. Borris said he was blacklisted for reporting violations while working for Safety & Ecology Corp. His case is on appeal.
Safety & Ecology spokeswoman Anne Smith would not comment on the specifics of the cases but said that “employees are encouraged to report unsafe conditions” so the company can take action.
Energy spokeswoman Laura Schachter said the department is committed to providing a safe workplace. The government “prohibits contractors from retaliating against employees, and imposes severe penalties against contractors who fail to follow the policy,” she said. The department fined Safety & Ecology Corp. $55,000 in the firing of Sue Gossett.
Rod Gossett, who now works for a different contractor at Piketon, said he believes the companies involved in his whistle-blower case — typically lowbidders on the jobs — didn’t want to know about safety violations because it would cost money to correct them.
“Safety is the easiest corner to cut, if you can get away with it,” he said.
The burden of proof
When he unveiled the federal compensation program in 2000, Clinton administration Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said it would finally “do the right thing” by World War II and Cold War atomic workers who “labored under difficult and dangerous conditions with some of the most hazardous materials known to mankind” to build America’s nuclear arsenal.
Richardson, now governor of New Mexico, said in a statement that he remains proud of the program, although he said it hasn’t been adequately funded.
Many Piketon workers still fight to get compensation. They either have to prove they have one of the diseases on the special cohort list, or prove their illnesses are connected to workplace exposures.
That can be a tough road. Often, illnesses don’t crop up for years, even decades, and it’s unclear what caused them. Was it workplace exposures or was it smoking? Or alcoholism? Or obesity? Or genetics? Some combination of factors?
“When you look at a population of folks who have cancer, the determination of whether there’s a radiation linkage to that cancer is very complex,” the Labor Department’s Hallmark said.
The dose reconstructions are supposed to identify the likelihood that a cancer is work-related. Researchers compare known plant hazards to employee work histories and other information to determine a worker’s total exposures. If a cancer was “at least as likely as not” caused by a workplace exposure, the worker gets compensation and medical benefits. But if the likelihood is less than 50 percent, the worker’s claim is denied.
It’s “a very claimant-favorable, very conservative approach,” said NIOSH’s Elliott.
But Miller, who used to work for the atomic workers’ union, called the reconstructions “shoddy, shabby, third-rate science.”
He said the program is “infested with professional conflicts of interests” because many of those evaluating worker claims formerly worked for the Energy Department. Oak Ridge Associated Universities, whose staffers perform the reconstructions, also is an Energy Department contractor.
“NIOSH brings with it a bias that there’s no dose you can’t reconstruct, no matter how scant the data,” Miller said.
“They may talk about how claimantfriendly they are, but at the end of the day they’re deeply contemptuous of the claimants and this program.”
Elliott said he uses former Energy contractors because of their expertise. He acknowledged that some ORAU scientists previously worked for the Energy Department, and at the very plants they were evaluating for NIOSH, but he said those with such direct conflicts have been reassigned.
In addition to proving their cancers are work-related, claimants have to prove they were employed at a government nuclear facility. For James Reynolds, that’s been a formidable task.
Reynolds, 81, of Morehead, Ky., said he was a Piketon plant chemist who worked for a subcontractor in the mid-1950s. Reynolds has been seeking compensation for several years, but officials say they can’t confirm he worked at the plant. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t.
Roberta Mosier, deputy director of the program, said incomplete records make it hard to verify that subcontractor employees like Reynolds worked at Energy Department facilities.
Reynolds has had several strokes, suffers from a lung disease and has been on medication since 1974 for degeneration of his blood vessels. “I’ve been told they can’t operate on my blood vessels anymore,” he said. “An aorta ruptured on me in ’90 — I’m not supposed to be alive.”
Reynolds said he worked in the plant 50 years ago, but is still waiting for the compensation he believes he deserves.
“I hope I see some results myself,” he said. “If not, maybe my heirs will.”
Over nearly five decades, thousands of people like Reynolds passed through the gates at Piketon, doing a job that many coveted for its good wages and benefits. But now instead of serving their government, a good many of them are fighting it, often while battling debilitating or terminal illnesses.
“The Cold War is still being fought in nursing homes, in convalescent facilities and in emergency rooms and in hospices all over the United States,” Borris said. “It’s not the type of killer that kills right away.
“It kills over a long period of time.”
PIKETON — Powerful as his words are, it’s not just what Sam Ray says that catches the attention of people from Appalachian Ohio to Capitol Hill. It’s how he says it.