Robert Weller Associated Press Writer WESTMINSTER (AP)
Saying they feared they could be dead before they are compensated for exposing themselves to radiation while making triggers for nuclear weapons, former workers at Rocky Flats on Wednesday pleaded with the government to speed up benefits to those who developed cancer. “We are Cold War veterans. I feel like I sacrificed my health and life like the soldiers in Iraq except there will be no flag on my coffin,” said Judy Padilla of Denver. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998 and had a radical mastectomy. Almost five years later her request for compensation was rejected. More than two dozen told a presidential advisory board that unreasonable government standards slow the process down by requiring workers to file individual claims that include proof they were exposed to radiation. In many cases records have been lost. A meeting that was scheduled to last an hour continued hours later. Colorado's congressional delegation has tried unsuccessfully several times to add Rocky Flats to the group of 21 other nuclear sites whose former employees need only show that they have one of the many forms of cancer exposure to radiation can cause. The board was to vote Thursday on whether to add Rocky Flats to the group. Paul L. Ziemer, professor emeritus of health sciences at Purdue University and chairman of the advisory board, warned the former workers that the group's decision would only be a recommendation. Workers at Rocky Flats worked with highly radioactive plutonium, which has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. The danger of working near such material was not disclosed to many, and only became public knowledge in the late 1960s. “They didn't let you know when you first started how dangerous it was out here, but I found out when they trained me as a monitor,” said Bob Carlson, 82, of Arvada, who worked at the plant for 27 years as a janitor, assistant chemical operator and radiation monitor. Carlson, who said he has colon cancer, has waited four years for benefits and was carrying a book with names of people who worked with him who have died. He said he saw repeated violations of safety rules, including spillage of plutonium waste, while working as a monitor. Dennis Romero of Thornton said when crews fell behind their quotas they worked extra hours and were told to put their radiation badges in their pockets so they wouldn't indicate they had been exposed too long. John Peterson, also of Thornton, said his claim was still being processed even after he had his prostate removed because of cancer. “There was so much radiation in my urine sample I was told not to pee in public,” he said of a recent sample submitted. Then he was told he had to prove the cancer was a result of working 31 years at Rocky Flats. About 25,000 people worked in the construction or operation of the plant, 16 miles northwest of Denver, from 1949 to 1990. Department of Labor figures released this month showed that 5,221 claims had been filed from Colorado, and 2,615 of them had been paid. The total paid to Colorado claimants was $130,660,717, or an average of about $50,000. The congressional act setting up payments to former nuclear workers who developed cancer capped benefits at $250,000 per person. A joint University of Colorado and Colorado Department of Health and Environment study released in 2003 found that Rocky Flats employees, especially those with longer tenure, were at a higher risk of contracting lung cancer than the general population. It also found that further study was needed of whether workers suffered an extraordinary risk of cancer of the digestive tract, rectum, nervous system and brain. The study said 1,259 cases of cancer involving Rocky Flats workers had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control. As a monitor, Carlson was called in whenever there was a fire or any malfunction at the plant. He said his claim has been denied because only external cancer is recognized for benefits, not internal cancer. “I was exposed to everything. When you were contaminated they washed everything off you inside the building. Then you went to the medical center where they washed you again with Clorox,” he said. It cost $7 billion to clean up the site. Hundreds of fires occurred, but were contained and officials say released only very small amounts of plutonium that were no threat to Denver. The plant was shut down after a 1989 raid by federal agents tipped off by a whistle-blower who said the plant was burning radioactive waste at night, an allegation confirmed by a nighttime surveillance flight. A grand jury sought to indict the plant's operator, Rockwell International, but federal prosecutors refused to proceed and instead accepted guilty pleas to 10 hazardous waste and clean water violations in 1992 and a fine of $18.5 million. Nearby residents filed a lawsuit against the plant's two operators, Rockwell and Dow Chemical Co., and a federal jury last year ordered the two companies to pay them $553.9 million in damages. The decision is being appealed.