It’s the domain of Bob Warren, a 71-year-old South Carolina native who almost went broke representing people sickened by radiation and chemicals. Once the top barrister in a four-person legal office, Warren is today the only one left.
Warren, who has been slowed by Parkinson’s disease, shows up every day for work in what has become a more than 10-year fight against the federal government.
He takes calls from the families of ailing workers, examines piles of documents he’s obtained through open records requests, and collaborates with a fellow lawyer in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. The work can be sad at times, but Warren says it’s hard to shake the image of a person who got sick working at the Savannah River Site, a nuclear weapons complex near his hometown of Allendale, South Carolina.
“Listening constantly to people in desperate situations didn’t give you a choice but to try and help them,’’ the mild-mannered Warren said during an interview in this town in the western North Carolina mountains.
Warren’s work began in 2002 after he decided to challenge the government on behalf of people who say the Savannah River Site caused cancer and other illnesses. A federal program had been set up to compensate former Department of Energy employees at nuclear weapons sites across the country, including SRS along the South Carolina-Georgia border.
But not long after its inception, people began to complain that the program was little more than a bureaucratic maze of rules so tedious that the average person couldn’t navigate it. Many were turned down for compensation that could have helped them pay bills.
Some people sought lawyers, only to be turned away because the attorneys believed working on the employees’ behalf wasn’t lucrative enough.
But Warren was glad to take the cases, he said. Warren liked the idea of taking on the government on behalf of sick DOE workers. It’s the kind of cause he has championed throughout his 42-year legal career. It also dovetailed with past work he’d done at SRS, which included a 1970s-era case on behalf of an employee who claimed the site had made him sick.
“It’s always rewarding to follow your conscience,” Warren said. “It’s difficult to come up with the money to be able to help them. You’ve got phone bills and computers and all the other things that are inherent to a law practice. It’s been difficult, but kind of fun to outsmart the ‘corporation.’”
In 2012, he helped persuade the federal government to make it easier for hundreds of ex-SRS workers to receive compensation. The federal government declared that year that many people who worked at SRS from 1953 to 1972 would receive benefits without having to prove the plant caused their illnesses. Many had tried unsuccessfully for years to show that their cancers were caused by working at SRS.
Instead of taking traditional legal cases, Warren began representing African Americans and others who were not part of the Allendale area power structure. He also criticized state and federal judges for what he said was a bias against the poor.
Those types of cases, however, didn’t set well in the Deep South of the 1970s, particularly in Allendale. Warren said an entire bridge club that his wife belonged to quit en masse to protest his effort to help blacks gain entrance to a community swimming pool. He also challenged the federal government over policies at SRS.
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“At the time, he was perceived as a pinko communist trying to help Russia take over America,’’ said Tom Johnson, a South Carolina lawyer and friend of Warren’s.
“His moral code sometimes excluded all pragmatism. He was willing to pay the price for his principles. In Allendale at the time, that basically meant fighting for black people.’’
Warren said he never envisioned how difficult it would be financially, but it was hard to ignore what he considered a public need. The grandfather of seven is now trying to persuade the federal government to expand the category of workers who could become eligible without having to prove radiation made them sick. He argues that records don’t exist to allow them to prove their doses, so they should automatically qualify, in certain situations.