At Hanford, sick nuclear workers await compensation via Al Jazeera America

KENNEWICK, Wash. – On his tiny farm, Terry Wattenburger admired a new cycle of life emerging in his backyard: A blue-eyed American Paint foal grazed next to its mother and a fuzzy, multicolored chick chirped and hopped through the grass.

The baby animals help the 50-year-old grandfather take his mind off the uncertainty of his own life.

Wattenburger is not the man he used to be. In photographs from a few years back, he looked like a football player, standing 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 220 pounds. However, his years-long battles with cancer and lung disease have taken a toll on his body – at one point sending his weight plummeting to 106 pounds.

In between congested coughs and persistent sniffling, an achy Wattenburger grabbed his thighs through his loose jeans to outline their skeletal shape.

“On this frame, it’s hard to put on weight,” he said.

Wattenburger insisted his face looked deceivingly healthy due to medication he takes, so he also removed his shirt to reveal a bony upper body with scars where doctors removed his entire stomach a few years earlier.

“I have little holes and stuff,” he said.

Wattenburger struggles with myasthenia gravis (a neuromuscular disorder), stomach cancer, pneumonia, peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) One doctor emphatically called the combination of cancers “unusual,” according to his medical records.

Although government records show he was exposed to various substances like arsenic, ammonia, asbestos and cadmium oxide among others, the federal government has not approved his compensation claim, saying he only worked 19 days at the site – not long enough to have suffered such adverse health conditions.

Wattenburger disputes that assessment of his work record and says many of his records are missing or were not available for consideration by the government.

Congress created the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program in 2001 to help sickened nuclear workers with medical expenses and to compensate them for job-related illnesses. But many say the claims process is designed to make people like Wattenburger give up hope and stop trying.
According to the Department of Labor, claims can be denied if a claimant is unable to establish a causal relationship between job-related exposure to a toxic substance and their medical condition. They may also be denied if they are not able to prove employment or survivorship.

Geer said he has doctors’ written opinions stating his medical conditions are linked to his exposures to toxins while working at Hanford.

About 49 percent of the 26,025 Hanford-related claims have been approved for compensation, according to the Department of Labor, with payouts totaling $723 million as of Oct. 5. But the agency wouldn’t reveal the average number of times a claimant is denied before being approved.

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