Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2020
By Kelly Lundeen
This year marks the milestone commemorations of the devastating Trinity bomb test and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By contrast, an anniversary to be celebrated is the 20 years since enactment of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) of 2000.
This is the program that has helped 126,000 nuclear and uranium workers access $18 billion to date in much-deserved medical benefits and compensation for deaths and illnesses related to exposures to radiation and toxic substances while at work building the US nuclear arsenal.
The EEOICPA was brought into effect after nuclear workers at a uranium enrichment facility, the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, in Kentucky, filed a $10 billion class-action lawsuit against federal government contractors. This is only one of the 350 nuclear weapons production, research and development sites and thousands of uranium mines and mills that have had former workers lining up to access the program.
Applying for benefits and compensation under EEOICPA is a complicated and long process. Today nearly 13,000 claims have been filed and are awaiting a decision while 96,000 claims have been denied.
Have you ever heard of this guy? “My name is Joe Harding,” he starts in a 1980 audio cassette memoir. “I am 58 years old. I have a story that I think everyone in America should know about. I heard about the atomic energy [Union Carbide] plant that was being built at Paducah, Kentucky…[it] seemed to be important and patriotic…I was 31 years old…I was strong and healthy and tough.”
Meet Clara Harding. “He began to have mutations from his joints, his fingers, toes, his angles, his elbows, his shoulder blades…Bone was actually growing through the flesh.”
Joe described the mutations “like a piece of finger nail sticking through…I would trim it off … and it would come back again.” That wasn’t all that was happening to him. He died of stomach cancer related to his 18 years at the plant.
Al Puckett was a union shop steward at the Paducah site. “They told us that stuff won’t hurt you … if you ate it.” In 1999 a document was released proving that Union Carbide plant officials knew what was happening because they were tracking worker cancers and deaths. Puckett lamented, “A lot of my friends I know died from what they did. It was just like people was expendable.” Over $1 billion has been paid to former Paducah workers through EEOICPA.
These days fewer workers are taking advantage of EEOICPA. Those working in uranium mining, milling and transport are only eligible if their exposure was prior to 1971, although groups like the Post-71 Uranium Workers Committee are working to change that.
The nuclear production, research and development workforce has decreased, although some effects of radiation exposure don’t usually appear until years later. Work site safety standards have improved as worker illness and death have cut into the bottom line of the corporations profiting from them.
Professional Case Management (PCM) is an organization that helps nuclear workers apply for benefits. PCM spokesperson Tim Lerew says some workers die waiting and that’s “not just an occasional occurrence, because a typical claim can be just a few months…but sometimes can drag into years.” Instead of covering medical costs when due, EEOICPA is only taking responsibility for compensation which Lerew translates into, “health care delayed is health care denied.”
PCM will mark the 20th anniversary on October 30, as it does every year, with a remembrance for those who paid with their health and sometimes their life working in the nuclear weapons complex.
See more at coldwarpatriots.org.