Sick Worker’s At Hanford Speak Out And Raise Public Concern

RadCast Note: One of the most common occurrences when looking at illnesses clearly caused by the nuclear industry against its own workers or the community at large, is the complete lack of responsibility for healthcare and needs of those people once they’ve become sick. We see this today from Hanford very clearly. We also saw it from Hanford and the DOE when the Green Run Experiment took place. Radioactive fission products were released intentionally into the air. Thousands of people got cancer and died. Others had babies born with birth defects. This is well documented. Only a few of those who were killed were able to “win” in a law suit against the Gov. and the DOE.  It is common practice among the nuclear industry to be completely absolved of any responsibility even when it has been proven that they were egregiously negligent.

Hanford worker: ‘When you’re dead, they have nobody to fight’

Susannah Frame, June 16, 2014 KING 5 NEWS

PASCO, Wash. — When workers at the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington get seriously sick, there’s a program set up 15 years ago they can turn to for help with long-term medical and disability benefits.

Called the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP), it was established by Congress in the year 2000 to aid the men and women who risked their lives during and after the Cold War at places like Hanford — where the raw fuel was made for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal, and where radiation and toxics continue to pose a significant safety threat.

The problem with the program, however, is that workers who apply for help say they are met with delays and denials. A government audit released in 2010 found that processing claims can take up to seven years — a frustrating delay for people who struggle to pay for expensive medical treatments.

Eight people — 5 former workers, 1 current and 2 family members who’ve lost loved ones — talked with KING 5 about their struggles to obtain benefits they believe they are entitled to.

Some, like Roger Ibarra and Dick Simonis, are suffering from COPD — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease often associated with emphysema, asthma and chronic bronchitis.

Ron Stevens, a 20-year veteran of the Hanford Site, suffers from COPD, as well as kidney failure and cancer.

Scott Passage, age 54, has COPD that is so advanced that he’s left with just 28 percent of his lung capacity. He said he’s supposed to be on oxygen 24-hours a day. Passage is currently in remission from stage four throat cancer.

Dale Geer worked in the Hanford tank farms for 26 years — where he said the Safety teams told him he was protected from metals like mercury and lead. Now he’s sick with COPD and toxic encephalopathy – damage to the brain damage caused by toxins.

Evelyn Hall’s husband, Bill, died in 2009 of leukemia. He was a maintenance manager who worked in the field often.

At 49, Terry Wattenburger is constantly in and out of the hospital…..with COPD, two types of cancer and a muscle disease. As recently as two years ago he appeared healthy, but since then cancer required his doctors to remove his stomach, and Wattenburger lost 70 pounds, leaving him with a skeletal physique.

What each of these people has in common is that they have applied to the U.S. Department of Labor’s EEOICP (program) but have yet to receive benefits.

The federal government accepts that the workers in the group that spoke with KING 5 were exposed to toxins like arsenic, ammonia, asbestos and cadmium. But doctors employed by contractors hired by the Department of Labor to evaluate claims have concluded that in their cases, working at Hanford was not a significant factor in causing, contributing to, or even aggravating their illnesses.

“I’ve fought and I’ve fought and I’ve fought them and it’s a losing battle,” said Stevens.

The Department of Labor is quick to tout how much assistance has been paid out under the program — $10 billion as of December 2013. That money covers payments to thousands of workers who got sick after working at scores of facilities across the country, not just Hanford.

But the 2010 audit by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the United States Congress, highlighted numerous problems in the program that explain why Hanford workers are so frustrated. Investigators found that there’s no oversight of the consultant physicians who recommended the denials. What’s more, the doctors — hired by Department of Labor-paid contractors to review claimants’ medical files — never actually see the patients.

The Department of Labor declined to make a representative available to be interviewed on camera, but sent a statement that said consulting doctors are used not to hurt, but “actually to help claimants who may not initially be able to meet their burden of proof.”

The group that spoke with KING 5 doesn’t see it that way.

“I just think that we’re all getting a raw deal. I don’t know why but … they [hire] somebody that really don’t know me, don’t know any of us, but is going to stamp a reject on your form,” said Scott Passage.

The congressional investigation also found processing claims can take between a few months to more than seven years. That’s time that many sick workers don’t have.

“I could die in six months, my lungs are going that fast, and I worry about my wife. That’s all,” Terry Wattenburger said.

“They’re running and hiding and denying and denying and denying, and they don’t care and all this money’s coming out of my pocket. And that’s what’s irritating me bad,” said Stevens.

The workers and survivors of lost loved ones said the system is so cumbersome, so lacking in compassion that they believe the government is simply waiting them out — to save money. Under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, the government at most pays out a lump sum of $250,000 to sick workers or to their family members if they have already passed away. But living workers are also entitled to payment for all of their medical expenses, which can add up to thousands and ever millions of dollars more.

“When you’re dead, they have no one to fight,” said Stevens.

“It’s very difficult in my opinion for the worker to pass that denial threshold,” said Dr. Brian Campbell, a neuropsychologist in Spokane who has evaluated dozens of Hanford workers. “They (the government) can outwait, outlast, and outspend any of the workers that I’ve seen.”

Of Dr. Campbell’s patients, the case of Dale Geer is perhaps the best example of that. Remember he has lung disease and brain damage. It took Geer five years to get the Department of Labor to help with his COPD. Now an in-home nurse visits once a week to manage that lung disease and the boxes of drugs and nebulizer treatments that Geer must use to stay alive. The Dept of Labor pays for the nursing care and treatments related to his COPD.

“I’m sick every day. I hurt from the time I get up until the time I go to bed,” Geer said.

But as yet, the department has continually denied compensation for Geer’s brain damage.

More than one physician who examined Geer concluded that his illnesses were most likely caused by exposure to toxics at Hanford. One went so far as to write that there “is no other plausible explanation” for the heavy metals found in his system. And that those metals are proven to cause toxic encephalopathy.

“Chronic cumulative lead exposure is well known to cause decline in neurocognitive function as well as psychiatric symptoms including anxiety,” wrote Dr. Mark Farley.

After Geer received that evaluation, the Department of Labor program denied his claim.

“What more does a person need to do than clearly state that the worker’s exposure at Hanford led to the problems described?” Dr. Campbell said.

The group told KING 5 that they are not looking to get rich. They said they want their medical needs taken care of. The two surviving family members said they just wanted to pay off the bills left behind by their loved ones.

“They promised us if we did get sick they’d take care of us, and now they kind of just, you don’t count now — out of the mix, out of the union, ain’t right, ain’t right,” Passage said.

UPDATE: Two Hanford workers were evaluated for symptoms associated with exposure to chemical vapors on Monday afternoon in the SY tank farm. The area was evacuated after the workers reported suspicious fumes. This brings the total number of workers to 36 since March 19 who have either been either evaluated or treated by medical professionals for exposure to sudden releases of unknown toxic chemical vapors. The vapors are released from underground nuclear holding tanks at the site.

Workers who spoke with KING 5 Monday were frustrated that people continue to get sick, yet Dept. of Energy officials, Hanford contractor executives and political leaders don’t appear to be taking the situation seriously.

“How many more people does it take before they do something,?”said on worker. “How many more times do they have to study it, review it, form another committee and talk about it? They know where the problems are. The politicians in DC said they’ll look into it and check it out. Their job is to pressure the Dept. of Energy to actually change things to protect workers. When’s that going to happen?”


Sick Former Hanford Worker Speaks Out about his Deadly Disease & Federal Compensation for Sick Workers

Posted: Jun 05, 2014 6:14 PM PDTUpdated: Jun 05, 2014 8:24 PM PDT

Posted by Jane Sander, Reporter

PASCO, WA-  NBC Right Now got an exclusive interview with a former Hanford worker who’s battling a deadly disease. He now gets money from the federal government because of his illness. Lawrence Rouse spent nearly 20 years working at Hanford’s most hazardous sites. He says he was exposed to nuclear waste radiation and toxic chemicals several times. Now he sadly lives his life with a deadly disease.

NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA | He receives some compensation from the federal Department of Labor, but he say’s it’s just not enough for how his illness has ruined his life.  ”The disease that I have, toxic encephalopathy, I think that’s how it’s pronounced, from the time you’re diagnosed you normally, it depends on every person, you normally have ten to twelve years and you’re dead. You just end up, it eats your brain away,” said Rouse. Lawrence Rouse isn’t the man he once was. Near the end of his almost twenty years working at Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant and nuclear waste tank farms, he began to develop severe symptoms. Stuttering, memory loss, losing his teeth and he became emotionally unstable including violent outbursts. Rouse’s deteriorating health and mental state is heartbreaking for him and the people he loves most. His son wrote a message about his changing father. ”Wrote this letter, this little poem and said that his dad is gone. He’s not the same dad that he had growing up. It’s hard for me to see that because that’s not me,” Rouse said. Lawrence’s wife, Melinda Rouse, says watching him get sick is very emotional. ”I think the hardest part for me is knowing what he was and seeing what we’ve lost. Hard on the kids, hard on me,” Melinda said. Lawrence says he was exposed to nuclear radiation around ten times and constantly exposed to chemical vapors. He says more often than not, the workers did not wear sufficient protective gear. ”Anytime you went into a farm to do any kind of work you’d smell something. Sometimes it would be a little one. Sometimes it would almost bring you to your knees…SY farm, it would rain the chemical on you from the stack. That’s why we wore the baseball caps.” A neuropsychologist evaluated Lawrence and determined he’s unfit to work. He says the Washington Department of Labor and DOE denied giving him money. But the federal Department of Labor did grant him compensation under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. EEOICPA gives compensation to workers that are ill from exposure to radiation and toxic substances. Since the program began in 2001, they’ve paid more than $1 billion in compensation and medical bills to workers they’ve determined are sick from exposure at Hanford. Over 15,000 workers have filed claims and less them half of them and their families have been granted compensation. Lawrence received $200,000 and gets $15,000 a year for lost wages. ”The EEOICPA, they’re good and they are helping the people who are hurt out there, but it’s not enough if you can’t work for the rest of your life,” Lawrence said. His wife Melinda says they need the money more than they can afford to fight the system. ”This is a little pittance. You accept it. Basically, you’re saying I need that money more than I need to fight the company,” Melinda said. The EEOICPA acknowledges the likely cause of his illness, but Lawrence and his family want the DOE to acknowledge what’s happened to him as a result of his years at Hanford. ”They’ve treated me very fairly because they already said yeah it happened and this is what’s going on and these are the chemicals that you were exposed to,” said Lawrence. ”But you think differently of DOE?” asked Jane Sander, NBC Right Now reporter. ”Oh DOE, DOE denies everything. DOE has always denied everything. And that’s not going to change,” Lawrence said. Since the EEOICPA became law in 2001, the program has paid sick workers from energy work sites nationwide, $10 billion. Meanwhile, more Hanford workers continue to file claims for their illnesses that they say they developed from working at the Hanford site.

 Sick Hanford Workers Speak Out For The First Time

Exposure to potentially harmful chemical vapors sent 26 workers at the Hanford Site to a Richland hospital or an on-site medical clinic in the two-week period starting March 19.

For the first time, two of those workers talk on camera with KING 5 about their experience — and the symptoms and problems they continue to exhibit nearly two weeks after breathing in vapors that vented from underground tanks and pipes that hold vast amounts of toxic chemicals and radioactive isotopes.

On March 19 health physics technician Steve Ellingson and a partner were near the AY and AZ tank farms at Hanford when they noticed a chemical smell.

“It got really bad. We could smell it, we could taste it. It has a coppery taste,” Ellingson said. “We both started to have problems with our chest and our throats.”

They exited the area after the smell seemed to get worse. Afterward, he said he couldn’t get the taste of out his mouth, and he began to experience nausea.

Over the next few days, Ellingson said he was evaluated at the on-site medical clinic, at a local emergency room and by his own doctor. None could find the cause for his symptoms, which he said worsened after the first day, with lung irritation, violent coughing and fatigue continuing to this day.

“It’s like I can’t get a good deep breath. It’s like a shallow breath all of the time,” he told KING 5 two weeks after the exposure.

Becky Holland, also a health physics technician at Hanford, breathed chemical vapors a week later while working with a team at the T tank farm. The group was preparing to shoot video of the inside of one of the waste storage tanks.

After a riser cover was removed, Holland said the group began to smell fumes. The group moved upwind to escape the smell, but the fumes only seemed to get worse — even workers wearing respirators reported they could smell it. An emergency evacuation order was issued.

Holland said he began to feel bad immediately. “I started feeling kind of numb, my face, and instant headache,” Holland said. “And then I started shaking really bad and sweating. It scared me.”

A 28-year veteran of the Hanford Site, Holland said, “I’ve smelled things before. I’ve been exposed to things before, but never been exposed to something or been affected the way that I was [on March 26].”

Holland was rushed to Kadlec Medical Center in Richland. “I was scared. I was shaking. I was profusely sweating and [had] a horrible headache,” she said.

She was evaluated and released the same day. The headache continued, she said, and the next day she began to experience nosebleeds so severe and persistent that she later had the inside of her nose cauterized.

“I’ve never experienced anything this bad,” Holland said.

“I’ve walked through this stuff a hundred times,” said Ellingson, a 22-year Hanford veteran. “I’ve tasted it. I’ve smelled it and it’s never bothered me. But now for two weeks I’ve had trouble and I don’t like it.”

Cleared for work

The 586-square-mile Hanford Site is home to 177 tanks holding the waste generated by more than four decades of plutonium production — a messy process that involves using caustic chemicals to dissolve nuclear reactor fuel rods to extract small amounts of plutonium. Twenty-five years after plutonium production ceased at the site, 56 million gallons of highly radioactive chemical waste remains to be treated for long-term storage. The tanks hold chemicals such as ammonia, butanol, formaldehyde and mercury. Much of the waste actively emits gas, which is vented through filters designed to remove radioactive particles. Chemicals, however, often pass through.

All 26 workers who reported being exposed to chemical vapors starting on March 19 were quickly cleared to return to work by the on-site clinic.

Five days after she breathed in chemical vapors at the T farm, Holland said she went to the  clinic and told the staff that she was still experiencing symptoms. She said she was shocked at the medical professional’s response: “I was offended,” Holland said. “Almost like, you’re making this up. ‘Here’s some Tylenol and a throat lozenge and get to work.’”

“I feel like it was the wrong thing to do to send me back to work after I told them how I felt and people [had] made comments that I didn’t look like I felt good,” Holland said.

Ellingson said he was surprised by his own experience at the HPMC Hanford Occupational Health Service clinic. His lung function has been weak since his exposure, he said. When an HPMC health care provider checked his blood oxygen level, Ellingson said “they made me sit there and take deeper breaths until they released me to go.”

In other words, Ellingson said he believes he was being coached to breathe harder so the blood oxygen level would cross a minimum reading. After that, he was released for duty.

HPMC is a private contractor that began serving Hanford workers in 2012. It is paid $11 million annually to provide an array of occupational health services to more than 10,000 workers at the site at its on-site clinic and in Richland.

Both workers said they believe HPMC is under pressure to get workers back to duty, even at the expense of their health.

“I think, politically, it’s good for them. … I think there’s pressure from other organizations [at Hanford] to send us back to work without restriction,” Ellingson said.

“I think that’s part of their job … get them in and out of there, get them clear to get back to work. It’s like the fox guarding the hen house, I think,” Holland said.

According to a statement provided to KING 5 by HPMC’s occupational medical director, the clinic’s guiding mission is to ensure worker health and safety.

“Decisions on an employee’s ability to return to work are based on an evaluation of their condition and the providers’ medical opinion. If an employee is too sick to work, they should work with their medical provider to determine when it is appropriate for them to work. As medical providers, our highest priority is the employee’s health. That is the top consideration as we determine when and under what conditions an employee may return to work,” said Dr. Karen Phillips of HPMC.

Holland also said that a good worker safety record is important to her employer, Washington River Protection Solutions. “A year ago the company had almost 7 million hours without a lost work day. It’s a big deal. It looks great on their safety record. They can publicize it, advertise it,” she said.

Nearly all of the workers who breathed chemical vapors are employed by WRPS, which has the contract to manage the 177 nuclear waste tanks at Hanford. For its part, WRPS says it is taking steps to identify the source of the vapor releases and is committed to worker safety.

The company also said it plays no role in evaluating workers who are screened for on-the-job injury. “WRPS is not pressuring workers to return to work and is not involved in the determination of when an employee is medically released to work,” the company said in a statement sent to KING 5. “Workers also have the option to seek additional medical treatment by a physician of their choice at any time.” (Read the full statement.)

Speaking the truth

As of Tuesday, none of the 26 workers knows exactly what he or she inhaled during the separate vapor incidents. But most are back on the job.

When Holland visited the HPMC on Tuesday, she said the medical staff reversed its decision on her health status. The original designation of “cleared for return to work” is “not cleared to return to work.” HPMC staff also offered her a ride home because she might not be well enough to operate a motor vehicle. Ellingson, meanwhile, has not returned to the worksite, but is still classified as cleared for duty by HPMC. He said he continues to struggle with respiratory problems, coughing and flu-like symptoms.

Both said they chose to speak to KING 5 because they believe Hanford officials are painting a rosy picture of what happened at the site starting March 19.

Ellingson said he believes WRPS’s statements made it sound like all of the 26 workers were healthy and back to work. “If it’s going to save people by us saying something, I’d sure like to see people get a better deal. I know I don’t want to be like this,” he said.

“The lack of concern for the employees, something definitely needs to change and I feel like the leaders need to start leading,” Holland said.

Both also said that in their view, the U.S. Department of Energy is ultimately responsible for everything that happens at Hanford.

“Clearly, the federal government made the mess at Hanford, and I think they should be held responsible to clean it up and … hire contractors who are ethical and put safety first,” Holland said.

“I believe that money is the most important thing out there,” Ellingson said. “I think there are people who are seriously concerned about our health, but I also believe that money is the driving force of everything that happens at Hanford.”

The U.S. Department of Energy owns Hanford and has awarded contracts to both WRPS to manage the tank farms and HPMC to deliver health services. Late Tuesday the Energy Department offered the following statement:

“Safety is the top priority for the Department of Energy and our contractors.  In our commitment to continuous improvement with a constant focus on worker safety and wellbeing, the Department works with Washington River Protection Solutions, as well as other outside agencies such as U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in the evaluation of emerging technologies and new protocols to ensure workers receive the best available resources to safely accomplish their mission.”