Compensation issue for Cold War-era workers unresolved

Lester Rich tries a drill bit from a shelf lined with old bits at Bonner Supply Company on a core sample he drilled more than half a century ago on the Uncompahgre Plateau. Rich said that he feels core drillers should also be covered by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

A move to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include a new disease has picked up steam, but a group of Cold War-era workers remains outside the system with little immediate hope of being included.

Uranium miners, drillers, haulers and others who now suffer from a relatively common form of leukemia could become eligible for compassionate payments from the federal government under legislation proposed by Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo.

Expanding the list of diseases covered by the compensation act, however, wouldn’t help core drillers, who located uranium deposits by drilling into the sandstones of the Southwest in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

Grand Junction’s Lester Rich, 75, a core driller during the uranium boom times on the Colorado Plateau, has so far dodged all of the diseases listed in the compensation act, as well as the form of leukemia now being contemplated for inclusion.

If the compensation act is to be expanded, Rich said, it should take all the industry into account.

“If you’re going to help one person, help them all,” he said. “I’d like to see the people who really, really need it have some help.”

Congress in 1990 recognized that miners who labored in unventilated mines before 1971 to supply the nation’s Cold War nuclear needs weren’t warned of the dangers of radiation exposure.

It offered miners who suffered from fatal diseases $100,000 compassionate payments, recognizing their contributions to the Cold War effort.

Congress in 2000 expanded the number of people eligible for compassionate payments under the radiation-exposure compensation program, boosted the amount of the payment from $100,000 to $150,000 and picked up the tab for medical treatment relating to radiation exposure.

To date, the compensation program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, has awarded more than $1.3 billion to 29,189 miners, millers, haulers, on-site participants at test sites and people who lived downwind of testing. That amount doesn’t include the additional $50,000 per successful claimant and their medical costs, which are disbursed by the Labor Department.

The Congressional Budget Office has yet to declare the possible budget effects of adding chronic lymphocytic leukemia to the list of compensable diseases and conditions, Salazar’s office said.

That job is made more difficult because of the nature of the illness itself. Even decades after exposure, some people might have yet to develop symptoms of the disease, which is similar to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Studies of the illness suggest it can surface “after a latency and morbidity period that spans several decades,” researcher David B. Richardson of the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote in a 2004 study of the link between chronic lymphocytic leukemia and ionizing radiation.

“The number of people with CLL who are covered by the program I would expect to be substantial, since CLL is one of the more common types of leukemia among adults (accounting for something like a third of all diagnosed leukemia cases in the U.S.),” Richardson said in an e-mail to the Sentinel.

The National Research Council of the National Academies of Science, however, remained unpersuaded.

It concluded in 2005 that epidemiological studies had failed to connect radiation exposure to chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Addition of the illness is long overdue, said Terrie Barrie of Craig, whose husband, George, suffers from 30 illnesses related to his work making weapons during the Cold War.

The Department of Veterans Affairs accepts chronic lymphocytic leukemia as a radiation-induced cancer, Barrie said. Recognizing that the illness is related to radiation exposure is significant, she said.

“It’s not just the way the language is worded,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with the way agencies interpret” federal law governing the way radiation-related diseases are treated.

Salazar’s bill would affect not only people who worked in the Cold War mining, milling and hauling industry of the American Southwest, but also others who worked in the development of nuclear weapons across the nation.

Rich, who is recovering from surgery for colon cancer, said the nation needs to do more for the people who worked on nuclear weapons.

His own history shows the value placed on uranium drilling during the Cold War, he said. His draft status was revised from 1A to 3A with the notation that he continue as a core driller rather than enter the service, he said.

The uranium he and others sought, he said, was undoubtedly dangerous and has effects that last even now.

“I worked with it,” he said. “I know what that darned stuff will do to you. I watched people go down with it.”


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