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.
The sick Rocky Flats veterans arrived by the dozens. They came on foot and in wheelchairs and on walkers, ambling through the conference center of the Westin hotel in Westminster this past May. They wore jeans and chinos and flannels and the occasional breathing apparatus. Some wore T-shirts that read, "Bury Rocky Flats, not the workers." Judy Padilla was there. Most were well into middle age and craggy-faced, with the calloused, meaty fingers of the blue-collar rats they once were. They had come to ask—to beg—the government to honor the law that it wrote for them.
The law is called the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, or EEOICPA (pronounced, e-oke-pah). Passed at the tail end of the Clinton Administration, EEOICPA was championed by Colorado Republican Senator Wayne Allard and a long list of legislators from both sides of the aisle, especially those whose constituents had close ties to nuclear weapons production. From page one, EEOICPA sounds less like a legal document and more like a confession. The document begins:
"Since World War II, Federal nuclear activities have been explicitly recognized under Federal law as activities that are ultra-hazardous."
A few lines down:
"...exposures to radioactive substances...even in small amounts, can cause medical harm. More than two dozen scientific findings have emerged that indicate that certain [nuclear weapons workers] are experiencing increased risks of dying from cancer."
The law's preamble acknowledges what people like Judy and Tom and the Rocky Flats veterans gathered at the Westin have believed for years. It read:
"Since the inception of the nuclear weapons program and for several decades afterwards, a large number of nuclear weapons workers at sites of the Department of Energy and at sites of vendors who supplied the Cold War effort were put at risk without their knowledge and consent for reasons that, documents reveal, were driven by fears of adverse publicity, liability, and employee demands for hazardous duty pay.... No other hazardous Federal activity has been permitted to be carried out under such sweeping powers of self-regulation."