Gerry Melendez McClatchy/The State
Gerry Melendez McClatchy/The State

Nation & World

Ailing nuclear workers: Relying on Jesus and morphine

McClatchy Washington Bureau

December 13, 2015 3:22 PM

AUGUSTA, Ga.

On an oven-hot Sunday in late August, Smitty wore white dress shorts and a cool lilac shirt that contrasted nicely with his salt-and-pepper hair, dozing in the front pew of the Southside Baptist Church.

Holding a black zippered Bible on his lap, he had his left leg stretched out all the way, resting it on two pillows on the seat of a wheelchair positioned just in front of him. He did it that way to protect a raw wound from a blood clot that ran from his knee to his hip. Doctors told him it was one of the biggest clots they’d ever seen.

After working 17 years at the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant, just across the Georgia state line in South Carolina, Smitty found out on Sept. 11, 2008, 10 years after he retired, that he had multiple myeloma, a cancer.

Just like 54,005 other workers who have tried to get help from the federal government after getting sick at a nuclear weapons plant, Smitty never got a penny.

At 62, he relied instead on Jesus and morphine.

That meant up to two 30 milligram tablets of morphine sulfate every four to six hours, as needed, and prayers all day long, including the reading of at least one chapter in the Bible each day.

He napped a lot, too.

At church on Aug. 23, Smitty jerked awake just in time for the praise band to perform. His brother Roland and a musician friend helped him hobble up to the altar, parking him behind his red drum set.

Smitty kept good rhythm as his brother played guitar and the singers rejoiced over the Light of the Lord.

When he got his diagnosis seven years ago, a doctor told Smitty he’d be lucky to live another two years.

He beat those odds by a long shot but died Nov. 5, ending all his suffering. Two days later, he was buried at Westover Memorial Park, next to the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Golf Tournament, at a site not far from the 16th hole.

Until the end, Smitty said he could not understand how the feds could say there was insufficient evidence to approve his claim for compensation. He said it was particularly perplexing because federal officials first led him to believe that his claim would be accepted, then suddenly ruled against him.

“I thought I was approved and shared it with my wife, and within no time at all, it was disapproved,” Smitty said.

Sometimes his body turned mushy, like a hard chunk of snow sliding down a windshield after it’s melted by the sun. One day his legs just gave way and he fell, breaking his pelvis. His doctor said he must have landed perfectly straight since it was a clean break that didn’t even require surgery.

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Smitty’s real name was George Smith Anderson Jr., though no one called him that. He saw plenty of evidence to back his claim, with the cancer in his brain, his bones, everywhere north of his knees.

Sometimes his body turned mushy, like a hard chunk of snow sliding down a windshield after it’s melted by the sun. One day his legs just gave way and he fell, breaking his pelvis. His doctor said he must have landed perfectly straight since it was a clean break that didn’t even require surgery.

Smitty said he had no doubt his cancer was the result of his work, including his stint as a reactor operator, getting exposed to radiation right and left. He said he often climbed into tanker trucks that had carried contaminated water, getting on his hands and knees to wipe them clean, with no protective suit on.

“That’s really working around a lot of hot stuff,” Smitty said. “I look back now and think, ‘What a dummy.’ I should have said, ‘No, I want somebody else to come in and inspect it before I go.’ Like a second opinion. But that’s neither here nor there.”

‘Delay, deny, until you die’

Shortly after taking over as head of the U.S. Department of Energy in 1998, Bill Richardson had an emotional meeting with a contingent of people from the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The group included widows who “would pour their hearts out,” complaining that they could not get compensation for their deceased husbands because they could not locate employment records.

After the meeting, Richardson said, he concluded that the federal government had to move quickly to ease the burden on sick workers and their families. And he said he wanted to make sure that workers didn’t get lost in the shuffle of having to produce work-related documents.

“The bureaucracy was saying, ‘OK, show me the records, and then we’ll show you the money,’ ” Richardson said. “And I said the burden of proof should be on the government and the facilities to show the records; it shouldn’t be on the families.”

But as Smitty knew all too well, that has hardly been the case.

Survivors such as Priscilla Maez Clovis of Albuquerque, N.M., say the people who run the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program are doing what they’ve always done: “Delay, deny, until you die.”

Over the past year, McClatchy journalists found that, on average, it takes 21.6 months for a claimant to get approved, while 20,496 workers spent five or more years navigating the bureaucracy. The government’s data shows that one production worker at a defunct facility in Portsmouth, Ohio, had to wait 14 years for compensation. The unidentified employee had bladder and brain cancers.

Across the nation, stories of frustration abound:

▪ In South Carolina, Clinton Edwards Jr., a minister who also works at the Savannah River Site, said he first discovered his health was in jeopardy when he attended a ministers conference in 1999.

“When I had to urinate, my urine came out like grape juice,” said Edwards, 53. “And so I knew that was not normal.”

Edwards, who worked at the now-closed naval fuel facility and recalls seeing greenish liquid leaking on the floor, ended up with kidney cancer and lost a kidney. He has never been compensated.

They didn’t deny that I had any exposure. The claim was that I didn’t have enough exposure.

Clinton Edwards Jr., a minister who also works at the Savannah River Site, SC

“They didn’t deny that I had any exposure,” Edwards said. “The claim was that I didn’t have enough exposure.”

▪  In Washington state, Richard Fash and his brother ended a 12-year fight with the Department of Labor by winning $150,000 after their father died from multiple myeloma.

Fash, 56, of Vancouver, Wash., said his father worked for the Department of Energy for almost 40 years, both at Hanford and at a site in Colorado. He said he’ll never forget the image of finding his father dead on the bedroom floor.

Fash said he sent in a Freedom of Information Act request to get his father’s records. But even with eight boxes of information, he had difficulty getting his claims approved.

“It’s just a big farce, basically,” he said. “They have all the records; they know what they did. The government knows more than any of us know,” Fash said. “So why should we be trying to prove to them what happened?”

Despite the complaints, Rachel Leiton, director of the program, said the agency over the years has implemented shortcuts to ease access to the program for families.

“We try to do the best we can to compensate them based on our statutory authority that we’re given,” Leighton said. “It’s a non-adversarial system. The money is there to provide benefits to these employees. … We do whatever we can to try to assist them.”

Disappointed in Obama

In President Barack Obama’s home state of Illinois, much of the anger is directed toward the White House.

As a U.S. senator in 2006, Obama told President George W. Bush it would be a mistake to cut benefits to workers who had developed cancer and other serious illnesses.

Some give Obama credit, saying the system could improve after the president moved this year to create a new 12- to 15-member board that will study possible changes for medical guidance for claims examiners and evidence requirements for claims.

But many former workers have been sorely disappointed.

“He hasn’t done much with it. I figured he’d help us more,” said Bill Hoppe, 75, who worked at a press mill at the site of the old Dow Chemical plant east of St. Louis.

Since retiring from the plant in 2002, Hoppe has suffered from prostate cancer and three episodes of skin cancer – all of which he blames on the long list of radioactive and toxic materials he unwittingly handled without proper safety precautions at the plant.

Shortly after he retired, his son, Bill Jr., died from an enlarged heart, a condition the elder Hoppe blamed on his exposure to beryllium dust.

“We’d bring it home in our shirt pockets. I get home, he’d jump all over me, wanted to play and all that, and that dust would get all in him,” Hoppe said. “We didn’t know it was hazardous.”

In September, Hoppe, who lives in Granite City, Ill., finally got $150,000 in compensation, as well as a guarantee of $250,000 in medical benefits.

The Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute, a nonprofit media center based in New York City, helped support this project.

rhotakainen@mcclatchydc.com, 202-383-0009, @Hotakainenrob

Continuing this week and online

Tuesday: Cost-cutting reduces benefits

Wednesday: Sickened and betrayed

Read the four-part series, including Sunday’s installment, at charlotteobserver.com.

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