Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship, Series 4: Rocky Flats Legacy: Nuclear Workers’ Stories

In Democracy, Environment, Nuclear Guardianship, Plutonium, Rocky Flats, Wildlife Refuge, Workplace exposure on February 21, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Judy Padilla and Jerry Harden, Rocky Flats Legacy: Nuclear Workers’ Stories,
Thursday, February 17, 2011

Introduction by LeRoy Moore: My earliest encounter with a Rocky Flats worker concerned about illness from workplace exposure happened in 1984 or ’85 when a man about 60 years old came to the Rocky Mountain Peace Center in distress over having just learned that his son, who’d followed him in taking a job at Rocky Flats, had been diagnosed with berylliosis. Berylliosis is a chronic lung disease that may take the susceptible individual into a living hell from which the only escape is a death that doesn’t come quickly enough. The danger of beryllium exposure had been known since 1942, but no precautions were taken at Rocky Flats to protect workers who handled this material. Much better known as a problem for Rocky Flats workers is the likelihood getting cancer from being exposed to plutonium. But in addition to these, the two most noted adverse health effects known to be present among former Rocky Flats workers, there are many unnamed ailments experienced by former workers at the plant. Many of them were exposed to a soup of toxins while on the job and very little is known about the health effects of various chemicals and radioactive elements in combination. In 2000 then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson admitted that the health of workers in the U.S. nuclear weapons industry had been harmed by workplace exposures; it was the first time a Secretary of Energy admitted that the industry had harmed its own workers. Later that year Congress passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act (EEOICA) and under this law a program was established to compensate ailing workers from the nuclear weapons industry. This program was supposed to give the workers the benefit of the doubt by shifting the burden of proof from the worker onto the government. But in fact exactly the opposite has happened, in that many workers from Rocky Flats and other facilities have been denied compensation because they can’t prove that their illness has workplace causes. Our guests on Thursday, February 17, are leading advocates for these injured workers and their families. What follows is my summary of the presentations made by Judy Padilla and Jerry Harden.

When Judy Padilla began working in the foundry at Rocky Flats, where the raw plutonium metal was melted and shaped into the crucibles from which pits (fissile cores of warheads) would be fabricated, she was one of only 4 women among 93 men doing this work. They thought she couldn’t do the job because it required lifting heavy parts, but she proved that she could. Everything was classified; she could not talk with anyone about what she did. Workers wore dosimeters and records were kept of their on-the-job exposures, but the ways of keeping the records were inconsistent and sometimes inaccurate. She contracted breast cancer, was off work for several months for a radical mastectomy followed by chemotherapy, then returned to work for 7 more years. Her claim for compensation was denied. She calls the government plan to compensate workers under EEOICPA a failure and pseudo science. She believes workers have a right to all information gathered about them, but they are unable to get this data. She has become a prominent advocate for ailing former nuclear workers and their families. Regarding the present situation at Rocky Flats, she says the site should be closed to the public and turned into a memorial for those who worked there on behalf of the country. Judy Padilla is a charming, very direct, very convincing speaker. I highly recommend the excellent five-part YouTube interview with her by Gerry Trumbule of Denver Direct. See http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=A8D4677386664692

Jerry Harden worked at Rocky Flats for 37 years as a Radiation Control Technician. He was a three-term president of the Steelworkers Local 8031 that represented the production workers at the plant. Due to workplace exposure, he has a presence of plutonium in his lungs – a plutonium body burden – very close to the Department of Energy’s limit for lifetime exposure, but he has not become ill. He stated forthrightly that “Rocky Flats was the most deadly employer in Colorado.” It produced the worst environmental contamination of any facility in the Denver area, much worse than the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, where nerve gas was produced. He says that of 6,000 claims for compensation brought by former Rocky Flats workers and their families over the past ten years only 2,000 have been settled. He had with him a big stack of papers and documents to which he continued to refer, going item by item through a long list of areas of the site that were accident locations or disposal areas that became sources of contamination on and off the site. Much of the information he shared he said came from the web site http://www.sem.dol.gov , which is the principal Dept. of Labor site containing information on likely sources of worker exposure at DOE sites. He touted this site as valuable but warned us that it is not easy to navigate. He also referred to the government’s “Transuranic Registry,” which contains autopsy data from workers exposed to plutonium. But this data is not available to the workers themselves to help them establish claims for compensation for possible adverse health effects. Regarding the Rocky Flats site, he could not emphasize strongly enough that he suspects it continues to be highly contaminated, because the stuff in the soil below 6 feet was not remediated at all. This includes the remains of major buildings — 771, 371, 881, 991 – that were dropped into their footprints. He referred very strongly toward the end of his talk to a fire that broke out in 2004 (next to last year of the cleanup) in the Bldg. 991 tunnel, a tunnel a couple hundred yards long in which plutonium was stored and through which it had been moved from the earliest years of the plant’s operation; this whole tunnel is part of the buried non-remediated part of the site. He emphasized that the site should never be opened to the public, that the activists had been right to question the bomb production because it is dangerous. He bemoaned the fact that what once was done at Rocky Flats is now slated to be done at Los Alamos and other sites. He seeks justice for the ailing Rocky Flats workers and their families, wants us to achieve this while preventing the Rocky Flats site from being opened to the public. One of the benefits of our evening is that we now have a videotaped presentation by Jerry Harden to place alongside the already existing YouTube interview with Judy Padilla. Together their stories make a strong case for care for the ailing former workers. Jerry’s presentation, like Judy’s interview, will be posted on DenverDirect.

LeRoy’s afterword: In the period between 1952 when production began at the plant and 1989 when it ended the total number of individuals employed at Rocky Flats was about 16,000. Jerry Harden stated that 6000 of this total — more than one in three of the total workforce – had filed claims seeking compensation for ailments that they believed were caused by exposures to various toxins in the workplace. And two of every three who sought compensation had their claims denied. This indicates the magnitude of the problem addressed by Judy Padilla and Jerry Harden.


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