Rebecca Moss, Santa Fe New Mexican
Ten years ago, a security guard at Los Alamos National Laboratory submitted a petition to the federal government seeking compensation and benefits for his fellow lab workers who were sick with cancer and believed that radiation at the lab was to blame.
Andrew Evaskovich’s petition took advantage of a process put in place by Congressin 2000 that allowed groups of workers to secure benefits if they could show that they worked at a nuclear facility, that they had a cancer linked to radiation and that lab managers failed to accurately keep track of their exposures over time.
Under the law, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency that makes recommendations on work-related injuries and illnesses, had six months to review Evaskovich’s petition and recommend whether it should be approved or denied.
A decade later, Evaskovich and his colleagues are still waiting for a final answer.
During a meeting Thursday, members of the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health agreed that NIOSH had failed to answer key questions about recordkeeping and exposure at Los Alamos and asked the agency to continue looking into the matter. NIOSH said further investigation could take up to three years.
“I’ve got a heartache with this,” said board member Bradley Clawson, a nuclear worker at Idaho National Laboratory.
Facilities around the country continue to be fined for failing to limit radiation exposure and monitor workers, he said. “I am not going to take it on blind faith” that Los Alamos is following federal rules just because officials say they are.
What has happened to Evaskovich’s petition is playing out at nuclear labs across the country. […]
The path to compensation has been particularly narrow for employees hired after 1996 — the year a new federal radiation safety rule took effect that required nuclear sites to limit radioactive risk and monitor workers’ exposure. The government assumed the new regulations meant that workers would be safe and that accurate exposure records would be kept, and therefore compensation decisions could be based entirely on those records.
In fact, public records show Los Alamos consistently violated radiation and nuclear safety rules after 1996. In one incident in 2000, Los Alamos workers were exposed to what inspectors called one of the worst radiation events in decades.
One government report in 2008 found nuclear safety issues at the lab were “long-standing,” with few buildings following safety guidelines and numerous incidents of “unusually high, unexplained dosage reading for workers.”
But post-Cold War workers are stuck in something of a bureaucratic loop. To qualify for compensation, they must prove that they were exposed to a certain amount of radiation. But they can’t show that because, they say, the lab didn’t didn’t properly monitor them. All told, Evaskovich gathered more than 50 examples of issues that he believed had prevented the lab from correctly tracking workers’ exposure.
In 2000, the Paducah workers became the first to be designated a “special exposure cohort” under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act passed by Congress. It meant workers wouldn’t need to show that they were individually exposed to radiation, only that they worked at the site during the time period when exposure was likely and had one of 22 radiation-linked cancers. Workers at uranium production sites in Ohio and Tennessee received similar designations.
Under the law, groups of workers at other nuclear facilities could apply for this special status, too, if they could show similar problems with recordkeeping. Each petition would essentially amount to an investigation into federal and laboratory safety and documentation practices.
In 2005, Shelby Hallmark, director of the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs at the time, wrote in an email to the White House Office of Management and Budget that, “We should do everything possible to oppose” the petitions, saying this would be “the single most effective way to prevent billions of dollars in spending.” One memo proposed allowing “interested agencies,” including the White House and the Labor Department, an opportunity to comment on the outcome of each petition.
Evaskovich’s fellow guards, however, worried that Ruiz’s petition, which would be approved in 2010, would do little to help them because few, if any, had worked at the lab in 1975. Some of them hadn’t even been born at the time. Even though some were young, they were sick and wondered if their cancers were caused by radiation. They said they stood guard in normal uniforms as scientists worked nearby in layers of protective clothing and masks.
He had submitted documentation that well after the early ‘90s, Los Alamos was not following the Clean Air Act, problems with ventilation systems in buildings that housed nuclear materials and doubts about the accuracy and placement of air monitors. He described how open-air explosive tests at the lab released depleted uranium and other toxic substances into the atmosphere, spreading debris throughout lab property. Other workers described handling radioactive water and burying the bodies of irradiated animals while wearing little protective clothing.
Indeed, records show that the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nuclear labs, had cited more than 50 violations of radiation protection and other safety rules at the lab between 1996 to 2005. That would have amounted to more than $3.4 million in fines, but those penalties were ultimately reduced and waived.