Out in the Cold
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.
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 Flats—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 seals—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 daunting—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.