The nuclear bombs Charlie Wolf built helped win the Cold War. But his toughest battles came afterward, when he applied to a troubled federal compensation program intended for those whose top-secret work made them sick.
Wolf wound up battling a bureaucratic morass for more than six years — all while fighting brain cancer that was supposed to have killed him in six months — trying to prove he qualified for financial and medical aid.
Earlier this year, the 50-year-old Wolf lost his fight against both cancer and the federal government. But next week Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., whose family has spent more than three decades trying to help stricken weapons workers, is planning to launch the next phase of the battle. He will introduce legislation to reform the program in Wolf’s name.
“Charlie Wolf was a hero,” Udall said. “He took on the government and the cancer. He didn’t give up. Charlie wasn’t just one individual. He represented all the workers.”
More than 175,000 of the nation’s Cold War-era nuclear bomb builders — or their survivors — have applied for the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program since it was created in 2000. But only 50,000 have received compensation.
An investigation published in July by the now-shuttered Rocky Mountain News showed that officials at the compensation program had built an adversarial system that created more hurdles than help for the sick workers nationwide. Program officials kept information secret, constantly changed rules and even considered spying on some workers who filed claims.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Labor, which administers the program, say it is operating smoothly and has paid more than $4.7 billion in compensation and medical bills.
Most of the Colorado congressional delegation supports the Charlie Wolf Act, Udall said. But he will need much more to pass the measure, which is expected to cost taxpayers at least several billion dollars.
For help, he’s reaching out to other lawmakers from across the aisle and across the nation. Every member of Congress likely has constituents who have applied for the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, he pointed out.
“We’re going to march to the end of this,” he said. “We’re going to build an alliance with other senators and members of the House who have similar facilities in their states and similar stories.”
Such an alliance will be key to getting a new program approved, said Richard Miller, a former Government Accountability Project policy analyst who helped write the 2000 law and a reform law in 2004. Miller suggested that Udall and his group also might push for reforms in the current program, now that a new president is in office.
“The guy in the White House had 16 of these facilities in his state,” Miller said, referring to President Obama, who as an Illinois senator became personally involved in trying to help sick weapons workers. “It would be useful to try a two-pronged attack. One can be legislative, but the other needs to be administrative.”
At least half a million people worked to build the nation’s Cold War nuclear arsenal, laboring at more than 300 sites across the country. Some sites were top-secret, self-contained cities, such as Oak Ridge, Tenn., or Hanford, Wash. They were built just for the bomb work, with their own housing, health care and security force.
Other sites were unassuming factories in the middle of major cities, including St. Louis and Chicago, where unsuspecting neighbors were oblivious to the exotic and very toxic substances being used.
For half a century, the federal government’s official policy toward weapons workers who complained of health problems was to fight them in court. One of the first lawyers to represent workers was Mark Udall’s uncle, Stewart Udall, who had served in Congress and as Interior secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
In 1978, Stewart Udall represented sickened Navajo uranium miners in federal court. The U.S. government knew the radioactive ore could cause lung disease. But officials never warned the miners. Stewart Udall lost the case, but spent the next decade trying to help create a compensation program.
Finally, in 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act. But Stewart Udall thought it fell short, so he spent another decade trying to get the program reformed.
Now the same pattern is playing out again. In 2000, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program was created to help not only uranium miners, but those workers who developed, built and tested the most powerful weapon on earth. Today, another generation of Udalls is trying to reform it.
Mark Udall is joined in the effort by Stewart Udall’s son, Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico. Both are former Democratic congressmen starting their first terms as senators. The cousins hope the Charlie Wolf Act can rip apart the troubled compensation program and rebuild it.
The bill would give automatic compensation to workers with specific illnesses, releasing them from a controversial portion of the program called “dose reconstruction.” This highly debated process involves seeking out historical records to estimate the chance that a specific person’s disease is work-related.
That process has been fraught with problems. The weapons sites were notorious for having destroyed, manipulated or failed to keep radiation exposure records. Even some of the records themselves became contaminated and had to be buried as radioactive waste. Other records are still classified top secret. The workers can’t see them.
Under the Charlie Wolf Act, workers would automatically be eligible for medical coverage and $150,000 in compensation if they had one of 34 diseases recognized as linked to radiation and toxic exposure. All of the listed diseases have previously been included in other federal compensation programs, such as a program for military veterans exposed to atomic testing.
Congressional staff members estimate the bill would cost taxpayers at least $2 billion. In 2005, Labor Department officials estimated it would cost $7 billion to do much of what the new act now proposes. Former congressional staffers who helped create the 2000 law estimate say the cost could rise to $20 billion.
The price tag has long been a stumbling block on the path to aid for Americans who sacrificed their health — and sometimes their lives — for the nation’s nuclear defense. But now, in an era where billions of dollars are being handed out routinely, advocates for the ill say the compensation program might finally have a chance to become what Congress intended in the first place.
“Twenty billion dollars is just a fraction of what’s been spent bailing out Wall Street,” said Terrie Barrie, who helped found the Alliance for Nuclear Workers Advocacy Groups, after her husband George, a former bomb builder at the Rocky Flats site near Denver, fell ill. “And $20 billion is just a few months in Iraq.”
The U.S. currently spends about $8 billion a month in Iraq.
Mark Udall said the proposed reforms would cost less than other federal compensation efforts, such as the program for coal miners who contract Black Lung disease. That program is funded by an excise tax on coal and has paid $42 billion to sick miners.
“Dollars are important,” Udall said. “But these are lives we’re talking about. These people protected our country and they should be treated like the veterans who fought in the hot wars.”
Charlie Wolf’s wife, Kathy, said her husband would have approved of the bill and would have done his best to fight for it, despite being unable to write and barely able to speak for the last few years of his life.
Now she will carry on the fight for compensation that he started.
After Wolf died in January, the Labor Department asked her to start over and re-file a survivor’s claim. Earlier this month, she received two letters on the same day from the Labor Department, both signed by the same official.
One letter said her claim couldn’t be opened until she submitted a copy of a marriage certificate and a death certificate. The other, paradoxically, said her claim had already been opened.
“Instead of spending money on the bureaucracy they’ve created,” Kathy Wolf said, “they should be spending the money on the people who served their country.”
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