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.
In theory, claimants who are rejected have some recourse: They can form a group and petition to be added to the "special exposure cohort" (SEC). If an SEC petition gets the green light, the dose reconstruction process is effectively waived, and claims are more likely to be paid. In other words, legislators wrote a bill knowing that it was flawed, and built in a safety net that acknowledged those hiccups. The SEC isn't much different than the original law. If a group of cancer victims wants SEC status, NIOSH requires them to do what they failed to accomplish as individual claimants: Prove what cannot be proven.
In 2005, the Rocky Flats steelworkers' union, Local 8031, filed an SEC petition. NIOSH eventually adjusted the petition such that any eligible Rocky Flats veteran could apply. According to EEOICPA, approval can only be granted by a 12-person, presidentially appointed Advisory Board.
This board spends a good bit of its time traveling city to city for meetings about SEC petitions. And in May it wound up at the Westin in Westminster. The prospects looked grim for Rocky Flats vets: Since EEOICPA became effective in 2001, the board has been frugal about handing out Special Exposure Cohorts. For most of the day, board members talked at length about the vagaries of nuclear science and the legitimacy of dose reconstruction. They stopped a few times to listen as government officials phoned in to plead with them—to insist that the board vote in favor of the Rocky Flats petition. It was a full-court, bipartisan press. Governor Bill Ritter called in. So did Senators Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard, among others. The board members listened with chins in hands and furrowed brows. Everyone in the room perked up when Barack Obama called in and asked that the board give our Cold War veterans a "small measure of justice."
Public comments started late in the afternoon. The sign-up list was several pages long. Nearly everyone—even the leather-faced tough guys—couldn't finish speaking without crying. A security guard named Richard said he never even had a dosimeter. He believed he got cancer from background radiation emanating through a thin, unprotected wall that he sat against. Many of his records were missing, but his claim was denied anyway. Walter, a skinny man with thick glasses, had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He explained that, as his radiation counts got high in the early '90s, his records somehow went missing. He dealt with NIOSH for five years—then they denied him. There were more stories—of male breast cancer and dosimeters that read "no data available," of financial strain and bankruptcy and second mortgages taken out to cover medical costs and lost wages. Judy Padilla gave a long and impassioned speech. "As a former nuclear worker at Rocky Flats, I am a Cold War veteran," she said. "I feel that I sacrificed my health like the soldiers in Iraq are doing. And we got no acknowledgment—and no 'thank you'—from our government. We don't even get the courtesy of a flag on our coffins when we die." Fighting back tears of rage, she told the Advisory Board, "What some of us would give to be in your shoes. You have your health, and all that power! Our lives and peace of mind rest in your hands. We're like the men on death row waiting for a phone call from the governor."
When decision time came, board member Michael Gibson gave a short but poignant speech in favor of the petitioners. He cited the workers' stories of unrecorded exposure, their financial struggles, the fact that they were fighting with the government while fighting to stay alive. "I listened to all the presentations from NIOSH and heard all the stories from the workers," Gibson later told me. "I weighed both sides and came to the conclusion that these claimants were exposed to radiation in ways that could never be proven." Gibson, who worked for two decades as an electrician and union officer at the Mound facility in Miamisburg, Ohio, added, "Trying to reconstruct a dose from hard data is difficult enough. Reconstructing a dose with data that's absent of hard records is somewhat of an art. There were unexpected events that were not set up for monitoring. I know those sorts of things happened because I saw them first-hand when I worked for DOE. The people of Rocky Flats deserve to have this petition approved."
Another board member proposed partial approval for a sliver of Rocky Flats workers; his suggestion was as convoluted and confusing as EEOICPA and the science of dose reconstruction itself. Even the other board members looked dumbfounded. Yet inexplicably they voted for the cryptic measure, right then and there. The workers cocked their heads and mumbled. The room hummed with the sound of befuddlement and frustration, like a town hall meeting just before the fight scene in a Western. One might have expected the local drunk to stand up in back and start ranting. Confronted with the palpable tension in the room, the board deliberated for several minutes, collectively shrugging its shoulders and appearing to grow as confused and frustrated as the crowd. They decided that they should leave Denver, reconsider the petition, and return some other time for yet another round of deliberations.
A month later in the conference room of the Lakewood Sheraton, the Advisory Board decided that three small groups of workers who were at Rocky Flats before 1970 should be added to the Special Exposure Cohort. The Flats veterans saw it as an empty gesture, noting that by the time the board's decision is finalized, most of those workers would either be dead or close to dead. Anyone who worked at the Flats between 1970 and 2005 was out of luck: No Special Exposure Cohort. No compensation.
A few days later, I visited Tom Haverty at his mountain home. It was the first of many conversations we had over the summer. We ate dinner and took in the view of the Spanish Peaks. "I'm a Cold War veteran, like a veteran of any other war," Tom told me. "I didn't go to Iraq and take a bullet, but I went to Rocky Flats and took a neutron for my country." Tom and I talked late into the night—about the culture of secrecy at Rocky Flats, about the various private contractors that managed the site for more than 50 years. We talked about the "sweeping powers of self-regulation" noted in EEOICPA's preamble, and the half century of oftentimes unsavory management within the Department of Energy nuclear weapons complex—during production, during the FBI investigation, and during the cleanup. And we talked about how the government manages the EEOCIPA program with the same disregard for workers that DOE and its contractors practiced. From past to present, across multiple agencies, the flaws were as incessant as they were systemic. I asked Tom for his take. He paused for a moment, distilled his thoughts, and spoke. It was one of the few times I'd see him without a smile. "That's a simple question," he said. "Follow the money."