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.
After a government sub-contractor, Rockwell International Corp., rendered the Flats a Superfund site, a new government contractor, Kaiser-Hill, was hired to clean it up. In 1995, the Department of Energy estimated that the project would take more than 60 years and cost $37 billion dollars. Once the project was under way, Kaiser-Hill developed more ambitious goals: 10 years, $7 billion. If the company could meet its target, it stood to make considerable cash incentives, paid by the DOE. The faster the job got done, the more Kaiser-Hill stood to earn.
On several occasions, the Department of Energy confronted Kaiser-Hill president Robert G. Card about "programmatic breakdown[s]" regarding health and environmental safety. A July 20, 1998, memo to Card from the DOE's Office of Enforcement and Investigation notes shoddy work that "led to potential violations of DOE [quality assurance] and radiological protection requirements." A follow-up memo to Card, in 2000, pointed out the "recurring nature of [safety] deficiencies" and "failures of the Kaiser-Hill Company...to correct quality assurance deficiencies." The list of previous safety concerns included insufficient storage of radioactive waste. Kaiser-Hill was fined $55,000.
Still the money flowed. One executive secretary told me she hand-delivered a bonus check for $257,000 to Card's office. If Kaiser-Hill could pull off the cleanup by 2006 as promised, institutionally it stood to make a "target payment" of $340 million. The contractor exceeded expectations. By 2001, Robert G. Card had done such a heck of a job that President Bush plucked him from Kaiser-Hill and appointed him undersecretary of the Department of Energy. While Card was a top man at DOE, the New York Times published a 2002 article called "Questions Raised Over Energy Dept. Official's Industry Ties." The story noted that "Mr. Card supervises the Office of Environmental Management, which is in charge of cleaning up nuclear waste sites and manages the contracts of his old companies." In 2004, Card left the DOE. He's now working for CH2M Hill, the parent company of Kaiser-Hill.
Card did not respond to multiple e-mail and phone requests to be interviewed, but, a CH2M Hill spokesperson, John Corsi, said that Kaiser-Hill's management of the cleanup was executed with utmost concern for environmental and worker safety. He noted that Kaiser-Hill's work was widely recognized with awards from the American Council of Engineering Companies, the American Academy of Environmental Engineers, and the Project Management Institute. Corsi stated the amount of Card's $257,000 check is incorrect, adding, "It is not appropriate for us to discuss the details of compensation for any employee of the project." He also pointed out that many of the "spot recognition" bonuses received by Kaiser-Hill employees were the result of outstanding health safety practices. "On our watch it was much safer at Rocky Flats than it was at other times," he said.
Safety at the Flats has always been a relative term. But nothing is clearer than a bottom line. Pressure is still on the Department of Labor to nip and tuck its budget, including spending on EEOICPA. In late 2005, Shelby Hallmark, the deputy assistant secretary at DOL, sent a memo to the Office of Management and Budget with a five-point plan to reduce spending, or as he put it, "contain growth in the cost of benefits provided by [EEOICPA]." The memo was leaked, and Hallmark denied any intent to see his plan to fruition. But that didn't matter. The average annual budget for claims under this portion of EEOICPA hovers at a scant $100 million. Over the past six years, DOL has spent $869 million on radiation-induced cancer claims under EEOICPA—a pittance when compared with spending on other government programs, like defense ($432 billion) or homeland security ($32 billion).
What's more, the Department of Labor allows the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to pay private contractors to perform dose reconstruction. In other words, while the Department of Labor avoids paying millions on claims, people in the private sector are making millions from the government contracts—and from a program that denies payments to sick and dying claimants. The main contractor in charge of dose reconstruction is called Oak Ridge Associated Universities, or ORAU, a Tennessee-based 501(c)(3) that has received financial support and personnel from the Department of Energy for several decades. ORAU and DOE share such a cozy history that it's difficult to tell them apart. "ORAU was nurtured by the DOE," one well-placed source, who insisted on anonymity, recently told me. "No, ORAU is the DOE."
In 2002, not long after EEOICPA passed, NIOSH awarded Oak Ridge Associated Universities a $70 million contract to handle the bulk of its dose reconstruction work. ORAU, in turn, subcontracted some of its work to other firms. It could be a simple enough public-private arrangement, but it could be a conflict of interest. By law, DOE workers are forbidden to perform dose reconstruction, and technically no one at DOE does. But, as New Mexico Congressman Tom Udall pointed out last year to a judiciary subcommittee, an overwhelming number of dose reconstruction team members working for ORAU and its subcontractors built their careers working for the DOE, oftentimes at weapons facilities.
NIOSH requires dose reconstruction workers to fill out a conflict-of-interest form. But consider Roger Falk. Between 1996 and 1998, Falk was responsible for monitoring worker radiation at Rocky Flats, back when Kaiser-Hill was tearing the place down. Falk then went to work for ORAU, where he was partly responsible for creating the Rocky Flats site profile, the document that's considered the bible by dose reconstruction team members.
"When a site profile is put together by someone who worked at that very site, the accounts of workers are not given equal weight," Advisory Board member Michael Gibson told me. "It's a situation where these people from DOE have found a second life [at ORAU]. It's hard for them to criticize their own work, or the work of their colleagues. And those conflicts of interests are not exclusive to Rocky Flats." ORAU never took Falk off the Rocky Flats project, but it updated the site profile he created. However, critics have noted that the old document and the updated version are virtually identical. Little remains changed besides the signature on the cover sheets.
NIOSH's Larry Elliott says that former DOE workers are the most qualified to perform dose reconstruction. "The pool of dose reconstruction workers is shallow and narrow," he said. Indeed, health physics is a niche industry with roots in the weapons industry. But there are also health physicists without such direct ties to the weapons plants—such as those working for radiological-equipment vendors. As the well-placed source who insisted on anonymity put it, "It's not that ORAU has the best health physicists; they have the contracts. You could find someone to do a credible job of dose reconstruction who isn't mired in conflict of interest." What you're looking at here, the source said, is a "plug-and-chug gravy train."
By the end of 2006, ORAU's $70 million contract to perform dose reconstruction had ballooned to $280 million. That dollar amount, it's worth noting, would be enough money to pay 1,800 claimants.