Share | Email a Friend

The Cost of Working at LANL

Horse Fly
Published Friday, August 15, 2008

In April 2000, then-Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Bill Richardson admitted for the first time that workers at nuclear weapons plants had been harmed by radiation and toxic poisoning. Richardson pushed for President Bill Clinton to sign into law in October 2000 to become effective in July 2001 the Energy Employee Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA--"ee-ok-pa"--or the Act), calling on stage a cast of acronyms that make the diminutives in Russian novels look easy. By the end of 2003, more than 23,000 sick nuclear weapons plant workers across the nation filed claims for compensation.

In 2004, DOE transferred the responsibility of the EEOICPA to the Department of Labor (DOL). According to DOL, by July 21, 2008, the number of applications for compensation has swelled nationally to 165,382. Of the national total, 14,828 are from New Mexico, with 7,091 of them from workers (or their surviving spouses and dependent children) from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

Broadly speaking, the Act offers compensation to employees of the DOE, its contractors or subcontractors and atomic weapons employers of $150,000 and payment of medical expenses from the date a claim is filed for radiation-induced cancers under Part B. Special Exposure Cohort Employees (SEC), a certain class of employees that includes those who were monitored, or should have been monitored, for radiological exposures while working in Technical Areas and whose Dose Reconstruction cannot be done accurately, due to lack of records, are eligible. So are workers with Chronic Beryllium Disease. The Act also offers, under Part E, limited compensation and payment of medical expenses to uranium miners, millers and ore transporters if their illness may be a result of toxic exposure other than radiation, that is, chemicals, solvents, acids and metals.

The variable $250,000 cap under Part E compensation is determined by wage loss, impairment and survivorship. Once the worker’s health Impairment has stabilized and is unlikely to improve (called MMI or Maximum Medical Improvement), the compensation is calculated at $2,500 for each 1% of whole body impairment (Part E). In the face of such hair-splitting, one can understand the frustration experienced by claimants whom Jerry Leyba reports encountering.

Leyba is president of the Los Alamos Project on Worker’s Safety (LAPOWS), a grassroots advocacy organization that has been meeting regularly since 2002 on the last Wednesday of every other month in Espanola at the JCI Building behind Northern New Mexico College. The organization welcomes not only sick Taosenos who have worked at LANL and need help with their compensation applications but anyone interested in advocating for sick workers to attend the meetings (for information call 505-660-0632). For all the frustration applicants experience during the long and arduous claims process, they can find support and empathy in advocates like Leyba who are hanging in there to help them.

Paul Montoya worked at LANL in the weapons foundry in casting and metallurgy. He has been poisoned by both beryllium and plutonium. He has nodules in his lungs. There were two incidents, he says, when he had "1,000 counts in each nostril." The plutonium gave him what is called a "body burden." He is one of the lucky ones who obtained his records from his days at the Lab, but he says, "A lot of people are having a difficult time because the Lab is not helping people."

"The DOL accepted me for medical benefits, but it’s difficult to get the money. I already have the card, but it doesn’t mean anything. It pays for respiratory and lung—like a car with a warrantee that pays only for the transmission."

EEOICPA’s list of facilities whose employees are eligible for compensation includes not only national nuclear weapons facilities such as Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California; and Los Alamos National Laboratory, but private contractors hired by the nuclear weapons industry as well. To get an idea of how the nuclear weapons industry permeates American society, the list of facilities and contractors approved by EEOICPA numbers over 350.

Many of the private companies employing nuclear weapons workers eligible for compensation have innocent-sounding names like Vulcan Tool Company or American Chain and Cable Company or Gruen Watch and are spread over 42 states. The list also includes academic institutions like Princeton, the University of Michigan, the University of Florida, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, to name a few.

Printed on paper, single-spaced, the list of chemicals, vapors, fumes and oils that Ben Ortiz was exposed to in the twenty years he worked at LANL as a welder runs the length of an 8 1/2 x 11 page. "In 1969 I hired on with the Lab, and by 1972, I was loaded with respiratory problems. They give you a complete physical exam when I started," he says. "I was healthy, healthy, healthy!" He worked in the facility where the accelerator was built. "Welding, soldering, handling radioactive oils with my bare hands, we were not issued any protection or told anything about the hazards of the chemicals. From 1972-89, I visited with about twenty-five doctors wanting to find out what was wrong with me. I had no idea it was my job"

"My eyes give me so much problems," Ortiz says. He has membranes growing from the corners of his eyes, which, if removed, would grow back. His eyes get inflamed "as red as a tomato," he says, "and swell beyond the socket." In 1983 he developed a chronic sleep disorder and still today, he cannot get to sleep. "If you read the occupational doctor’s report," he says, "sleep (disorder) is one of the problems the list of organic solvents do to you. They attack your central nervous system. One of the doctors I was seeing said my whole body was damaged, even the brain cells—toxic encephalopathy. My train of thought is easily interrupted."

One doctor told Ortiz his sleep problems were because he was too old. "I was fifty at the time," the seventy-year-old says. One psychologist he was sent to told him he was doing witchcraft and making himself sick. "They try to twist your mind, and if you are not strong, you could believe this stuff." The Lab sent him to a psychiatrist. "I asked him if he knew about chemicals. He made a Spanish comment: Voca cerava no enthra mosca, which means, ’If your mouth is closed, a fly will not go in." In other words, shut up.

Just the carbon monoxide in traffic can close Ortiz’s airways, "and I can’t breathe. It affects my sinuses, I have headaches. I’ve lost my sense of smell and taste. My eyes, my head, I feel intoxicated—industrial intoxication. Whatever years I have left," he says, "they are not good-feeling years—not a happy feeling."

Last year, thanks to a bill sponsored by Speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives Ben Lujan, Governor Bill Richardson established an Office of Nuclear Worker’s Advocacy in Santa Fe under the directorship of Loretta Valerio. Valerio is a hands-on caseworker, getting involved personally in helping claimants document their compensation applications.

Ken Silver, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at East Tennessee State University, underscores the point that this technical assistance is not coming from the federal government or the Department of Labor, but from the State of New Mexico.

Silver, another sympathetic advocate of claimants, co-founded LAPOWS with Ortiz, when Silver was a consultant to the University of New Mexico, while completing his doctoral thesis at Boston University School of Public Health: "Public History and Public Health: A Community-Centered Approach to Environmental Health Concerns in Nuclear Weapons Communities." He thinks "the key to success on worker issues is to keep the issues of stopping pit production and getting compensation for job-related illnesses separate. The objective is to do the work safely. But when the work has not been done safely, then you get people who feel they are deserving of compensation," he says. "What’s most unfair is that in most cases the burden of proof is on the claimant. The law does not provide the means to aggressively gather their work and medical records and to document them, to demonstrate the exposure that caused their illness. The information is available to specialists. There are a few dozen specialists in the field of occupational medicine, but it’s very difficult to find the doctor who is not the ’company doctor.’"

Silver has seen how hard it is for claimants to obtain documentation, even through avenues like the Freedom of Information Act. He asks, "Is that a fair burden to place on a claimant in his seventh, eighth, or ninth decade of his life? Now the government is asking them to research their documents and tell what went on at LANL, activities which in their day were kept secret."

"Some claimants are going to their graves uncompensated," Silver continues. "The claims of beryllium and radiation workers go to their survivors. In the case of chemical exposures, if the workers die while the claim is pending, then the surviving spouse has to file all over again."

Retired from clinical practice, Maureen Merritt, M.D., has become a consultant in occupational medicine. She founded her own advocacy group—New Mexico Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocates—and has had the satisfaction of helping several sick LANL workers turn the denial of their compensation around. . "People just get tired and give up," she explains. "I don’t like seeing the injustice." Merritt is optimistic that the next presidential election will usher in a new administration that she hopes will be fairer to sick nuclear workers.

Attending LAPOWS monthly meetings when he can, Andrew Evaskovich is a security guard with Special Operations Consultants of Los Alamos, whose services are contracted by LANL. He also is on the side of sick workers at LANL. Believing that the records and air monitoring processes at LANL are inadequate, Evaskovich petitioned the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Office of Compensation Analysis and Support (OCAS) to expand Special Exposure Cohort (SEC) status already granted claimants who worked at LANL between 1943 and 1975, thanks to a petition by Harriet Ruiz. He wants to add a class that covers contract security guards, laborers, and craft people—that is, electricians, sheet workers, plumbers and welders—who worked at LANL from January 1, 1976 to December 31, 2005. Because they move from job to job, they need to be exempt from having to reconstruct their doses of radiation or determining their probability of causation.

With his petition accepted for evaluation, the first step in the approval process, Evaskovich credits Congressman Tom Udall and his staff for helping him obtain reports he could not get on his own. "Udall’s office was instrumental in getting medical records preserved that the DOE was going to allow to be destroyed, records important to anyone filing a claim," he says. He is also grateful for the help of Ruiz and Valerio.

Having founded the advocacy group Honor Our Pueblo Existence (HOPE), Marian Naranjo wants to improve the protocol in filing claims. "Most of the claimants from Santa Clara Pueblo have cancer," she says, "but there are other problems--cirrhosis--with people who never smoked or drank--tumors, melanomas, etc. They are elderly and ill, so that they are not really enjoying the benefits of their retirement."

At the Rally calling for EEOICPA reforms held in Espanola on June 25 outside the Energy Employee Compensation Resource Center offices, Naranjo brought drummers from the Santa Clara Pueblo to open the event by drumming, praying and singing. Leyba of LAPOWS hosted the rally at which Silver, Ortiz and Merritt were among the speakers. According to Naranjo, the Rally was attended by about one hundred protestors. It was coordinated to be held simultaneously with other advocacy groups for sick nuclear weapons workers rallying in Cleveland, Ohio; Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Denver, Colorado.

Of the thousands of sick LANL workers who have applied for compensation, how many have actually been compensated? According to the DOL’s website, while EEOICPA has distributed almost $4 billion nationally to about a quarter of the claimants in the country, it paid $121,592,265 to 1,324 claimants from LANL. That means compensation has been paid to just 18.6% or to one out of five of the 7,091 LANL workers who seek compensation.

"That’s over 80% denied," Merritt points out. "Why isn’t it 70% compensated and 30% denied as it is with RECA, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act for uranium miners?" she asks. "One has to wonder why."

Readers are free to print out articles or letters for personal use and to quote or paraphrase them in other work as long as fair use of the material is given proper credit. See the Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide at for forms of attribution.