The conversation took place earlier this week between Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt. The discussion may have finally established the cooperation necessary to give ex-employees of the defunct Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant what they deserve: Compensation for diseases and other medical problems that came from serving their country in a stew of toxic chemicals and radiation.
Leavitt played the bad guy earlier this week when he refused to allow many ex-Rocky Flats workers into a group that automatically qualifies for compensation under the law.
But a subsequent telephone conversation between Leavitt and Salazar set the stage for what could be a solution to a shameful bureaucratic runaround.
“If Secretary Leavitt is true to his words on the phone,” said Salazar spokesman Cody Wertz, “he is open to working with us. He was hinting that it will take a legislative fix to get this done.”
The legislative fix may have the best chance to date of getting through the Congress.
“There’s a lot more interest in Congress about sick workers and what the (federal) agencies have done to corrupt the (existing) law,” said Terrie Barrie of Craig, whose husband worked at Rocky Flats, but hasn’t been compensated. “They want to get the program back on course to do what it was supposed to do: Compensate the victims.
“Congress is finally realizing that the agencies are not following the law.”
Bills to help Rocky Flats workers and others contaminated at Cold War weapons plants across the country have been introduced in the U.S. Senate and House before. None has gotten to a vote.
Salazar believes the bill he expects to introduce when Congress reconvenes in September will do better, said Wertz.
“We think it will do better based on the traction for Rocky Flats,” Wertz explained. “There’s been a lot of publicity about what those workers have not gotten. They’ve been denied and denied. The entire Colorado delegation is behind this (getting the Flats’ workers put into a special group).”
So far, that has made no difference to regulators from the Department of Labor and Department of Energy or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The sticking point on many Rocky Flats cases is a bureaucratic Catch-22. Workers with cancers and other disabilities must prove their exposure to toxins and radiation. But the records that would prove their cases were either never kept or destroyed.
“NIOSH says they have enough evidence to create co-worker models,” said Barrie, who helped found the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups. “We disagree. My husband worked at Rocky Flats. He remembers vividly two episodes of contamination for which there are no records. How is NIOSH to judge his exposure without records?”
Barrie’s husband is just one of hundreds of examples. Some of those people showed up for recent hearings on their inclusion in an automatic benefits group. They came in wheelchairs or carrying portable oxygen tanks. All told stories of unusual maladies.
NIOSH and Leavitt refused to budge.
Congress needs “to change some wording in the law,” Barrie said. “It needs to say ‘exposures,’ not ‘exposure.’ It needs to say ‘toxins,’ not ‘toxin.’ It needs to say ‘radiation.’ It needs to be specific enough so the Department of Labor can’t mistake what it is supposed to do.”
Here is what the labor department and all other agencies and boards involved in this tragedy are not supposed to do: They are not supposed to give civilian veterans of the Cold War the runaround until they die. That’s what has happened in too many cases. Payments for “wages lost and impairment” have been granted to only about 15 percent of applicants, Barrie charged.
Besides Salazar’s upcoming Rocky Flats’ legislation, at least three other new bills – two in the Senate and one in the House – seek to help ex-workers at nuclear plants in other parts of the country. Whether marrying those individual bills into a single piece of national legislation helps or hurts chances of passage is anyone’s guess.
For now, said Wertz, Salazar plans to stick with a bill that specifically qualifies Rocky Flats workers for automatic compensation.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Wertz said.
Sure it is. And there you have the problem.
It always has been.