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Delay in compensation for NUCLEAR LAB EMPLOYEES WITH RADIATION-LINKED CANCERS

NUCLEAR LAB EMPLOYEES WITH RADIATION-LINKED CANCERS HAVE BEEN FORCED TO WAIT YEARS FOR POTENTIAL BENEFITS  At the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, workers are still waiting for answers about who is liable for sicknesses they say were caused by radiation from the lab. REBECCA MOSS PACIFIC STANDARD, Nov 30, 2018 

Ten years ago, a security guard at Los Alamos National Laboratory submitted a petition to the federal government seeking compensation and benefits for his fellow lab workers who were sick with cancer and believed that radiation at the lab was to blame.

Andrew Evaskovich’s petition took advantage of a process put in place by Congress in 2000 that allowed groups of workers to secure benefits if they could show that they worked at a nuclear facility, that they had a cancer linked to radiation, and that lab managers failed to accurately keep track of their exposures over time.

Under the law, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency that makes recommendations on work-related injuries and illnesses, had six months to review Evaskovich’s petition and recommend whether it should be approved or denied.

A decade later, Evaskovich and his colleagues are still waiting for a final answer.

In 2009 and again last year, the NIOSH recommended that Evaskovich’s petition be denied. Both times, however, outside reviewers found major flaws in its analysis, and a federal advisory board told the NIOSH to keep working.

In October, the NIOSH again recommended that the petition be denied. And this month, outside reviewers again indicated that they had found serious problems in its analysis.

During a meeting Thursday, members of the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health agreed that the NIOSH had failed to answer key questions about record-keeping and exposure at Los Alamos and asked the agency to continue looking into the matter. The NIOSH said further investigation could take up to three years.

“I’ve got a heartache with this,” said board member Bradley Clawson, a nuclear worker at Idaho National Laboratory.

Facilities around the country continue to be fined for failing to limit radiation exposure and monitor workers, he said. “I am not going to take it on blind faith” that Los Alamos is following federal rules just because officials say they are.

What has happened to Evaskovich’s petition is playing out at nuclear labs across the country. At the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, a petition has languished for 11 years. At Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, workers have been waiting seven years for a final decision.

Taken together, the delays show the glaring holes in a process set up to help injured nuclear workers collect compensation for radiation-linked cancers in a “timely, uniform and adequate” way, an investigation by the Santa Fe New Mexican and ProPublica has found. Petitions linger for years without resolution, violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. And the NIOSH has repeatedly made improper conclusions about the safety and record-keeping at Los Alamos and other sites, only to be contradicted by independent consultants and forced to redo its assessments.

The path to compensation has been particularly narrow for employees hired after 1996—the year a new federal radiation safety rule took effect that required nuclear sites to limit radioactive risk and monitor workers’ exposure. The government assumed the new regulations meant that workers would be safe and that accurate exposure records would be kept, and therefore compensation decisions could be based entirely on those records.

In fact, public records show Los Alamos consistently violated radiation and nuclear safety rules after 1996. In one incident in 2000, Los Alamos workers were exposed to what inspectors called one of the worst radiation events in decades.

One government report in 2008 found nuclear safety issues at the lab were “long-standing,” with few buildings following safety guidelines and numerous incidents of “unusually high, unexplained dosage reading for workers.”

Since 2004, 269 petitions similar to Evaskovich’s have been filed with the NIOSH for review. Of those, about half have been approved, mostly for those who worked at nuclear sites before the 1990s. The NIOSH and the Department of Health and Human Services have yet to decide on 13 petitions, most of which seek to help workers employed after the mid-1990s.

The path to compensation has been particularly narrow for employees hired after 1996—the year a new federal radiation safety rule took effect that required nuclear sites to limit radioactive risk and monitor workers’ exposure. The government assumed the new regulations meant that workers would be safe and that accurate exposure records would be kept, and therefore compensation decisions could be based entirely on those records.

In fact, public records show Los Alamos consistently violated radiation and nuclear safety rules after 1996. In one incident in 2000, Los Alamos workers were exposed to what inspectors called one of the worst radiation events in decades.

One government report in 2008 found nuclear safety issues at the lab were “long-standing,” with few buildings following safety guidelines and numerous incidents of “unusually high, unexplained dosage reading for workers.”

Since 2004, 269 petitions similar to Evaskovich’s have been filed with the NIOSH for review. Of those, about half have been approved, mostly for those who worked at nuclear sites before the 1990s. The NIOSH and the Department of Health and Human Services have yet to decide on 13 petitions, most of which seek to help workers employed after the mid-1990s.

David Michaels, who helped establish the compensation program as assistant secretary of energy for environment, safety, and health in the administration of President Bill Clinton, and later led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama, said the problems identified by the New Mexican and ProPublica show that the program is not working as intended. “Congress has to fix it,” he said.

This is not the first time government officials have been accused of delaying action on petitions by nuclear workers. In 2006, members of Congress faulted the administration of President George W. Bush after internal memos suggested plans to deny petitions based on cost, rather than on scientific merit, in order to keep the overall expense of the benefits program down.

As a result of the delayed petitions, thousands of workers across the country have been left to navigate the benefit process by themselves, sometimes with incomplete or questionable exposure and employment records. Often, they are denied benefits. Last month, the New Mexican and ProPublica profiled the case of Chad Walde, a maintenance worker at Los Alamos who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014 and whose claim for benefits was denied. Walde’s recollections of his radiation exposure, confirmed by family members and colleagues, were not reflected in the lab’s official records, which formed the basis of the denial. Walde died in June of 2017.

At Los Alamos alone, at least 967 people who began working at the lab since 1996 have applied individually and been denied compensation for cancer, and most of them would become eligible for benefits if Evaskovich’s petition is approved. Another 800 people have been approved, federal data shows. Countless others may be sick but haven’t applied, said Bill Richardson, energy secretary during the Clinton administration. …………

In September of 1999, workers at a Department of Energy uranium processing plant in Paducah, Kentucky, sued the plant’s management contractors, including Union Carbide Corporation, Lockheed Martin Corp. and others. They alleged the contractors deliberately withheld information from workers about the risks at the plant. A separate lawsuit accused the contractors of defrauding workers and the government about the amount of plutonium in the environment surrounding the plant, reporting lower levels than actually existed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled against the workers in the class action, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The environmental lawsuit was ultimately settled.

The disclosures, however, were among many revelations in the late 1990s that shaped how the Department of Energy crafted its compensation program for nuclear workers with cancer and other illnesses. Richardson, the energy secretary at the time, apologized on behalf of the government for failing to inform workers of the risks at Paducah and other sites.

In 2000, the Paducah workers became the first to be designated a “special exposure cohort” under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Actpassed by Congress. It meant workers wouldn’t need to show that they were individually exposed to radiation, only that they worked at the site during the time period when exposure was likely and had one of 22 radiation-linked cancers. Workers at uranium production sites in Ohio and Tennessee received similar designations.

Under the law, groups of workers at other nuclear facilities could apply for this special status, too, if they could show similar problems with record-keeping. Each petition would essentially amount to an investigation into federal and laboratory safety and documentation practices.

The process required coordination between the Department of Energy, the NIOSH, and the Department of Labor, which oversees the claims process. The Department of Energy would turn over environmental and worker radiation records to the NIOSH, which would take that data and run elaborate risk calculations that compare the hazards present at a site to their likelihood of harming workers. The final say on the petitions was left to the health and human services secretary.

The rollout of the law did not go smoothly. In the years after its passage, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) delayed putting in place regulations to implement the petition process.

In February of 2004, 16 senators, including Hillary Clinton of New York and Pete Domenici of New Mexico, wrote to the HHS secretary urging action, and the department began accepting petitions that year.

But before long, there was again resistance, this time from the White House and Department of Labor, which were anxious about the number of workers that might qualify for benefits because of approved petitions—and the amount of compensation they would have to pay.

In 2005, Shelby Hallmark, director of the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs at the time, wrote in an email to the White House Office of Management and Budget that, “We should do everything possible to oppose” the petitions, saying this would be “the single most effective way to prevent billions of dollars in spending.” One memo proposed allowing “interested agencies,” including the White House and the Department of Labor, an opportunity to comment on the outcome of each petition.

After the memos were leaked to the Associated Press and lawmakers, Congress held five hearings on the topic. Representative John Hostettler (R-Indiana) said during one hearing that such efforts “would not bear well under scrutiny. Those involved in this backroom manipulation of the program have destroyed the government credibility again.”

Others who participated in the hearings pointed to other memos Hallmark had written, made public by Congress, trying to limit the power of the federal advisory board and its consultants. In one, Hallmark suggested the independent consultant reviewing the NIOSH’s work, Sanford Cohen & Associates, or SC&A, was too worker-friendly because of its criticism of the agency………….

In the years that followed, the Government Accountability Office determined that the claims process and the scientific review involved had proved to be more difficult and expensive than anticipated.

The GAO also questioned a lack of transparency within the Department of Labor, which was weighing in on scientific decisions without explaining why. That “could give the appearance of an effort to deny benefits to eligible claimants,” the GAO wrote in 2007.

At a congressional hearing that year, Dr. James Melius, an international medical expert who chaired the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, said the amount of time it was taking for the NIOSH to process petitions and individual workers’ claims far exceeded what was reasonable.

“We need to make that process work better,” said Melius, who helped create the compensation fund for 9/11 first responders and died in January of 2018.

He said if a petition review went beyond a set period of time, it should automatically be approved. “If not, it’s justice delayed a long time.”

But his advice has not been heeded. https://psmag.com/social-justice/nuclear-lab-workers-wait-a-decade-for-benefits

 

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December 3, 2018 - Posted by | employment, USA

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