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Robert Alvarez, senior policy advisor to the Secretary of Energy from 1993 to 1999, says he's not surprised that so few people made a connection between workplace exposure and later illnesses: Many workers from that era, Alvarez says, were told that the radiation "was no more than what they received from their wristwatch."
Decades would pass before the truth came out. Studies linking low-level radiation to cancer began appearing in the 1970s and lawsuits prompted by the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 uncovered new information about nuclear safety and workplace exposure. By the late 1980s, consensus was forming that many workers in the nation's early nuclear weapons program had been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.
Alvarez, as a U.S. Senate staff employee in the early 1990s, worked with U.S. Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio) on legislation to compensate those workers. Richard Miller, now a senior policy analyst with the Government Accountability Project was the lead lobbyist for a union that also pushed for passage. But the legislative effort didn't gather momentum until there was a change in the White House. The new Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson, opened classified records that helped build a case that the government and its contractors had exposed nuclear workers, without their knowledge and consent, to high levels of radiation. In 2000, Congress passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act of 2000, covering about 600,000 people at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $2 billion.
The law promised workers or their surviving families $150,000 for illnesses caused by radiation exposure, and it promised to help workers receive medical monitoring and costs from the state worker compensation programs. Although $150,000 wasn't much compensation for all the pain and suffering inflicted on the workers and their families, it was something. It was an acknowledgement that they'd been wronged by their employer and their government.
Christopher Davis' widow, Evelyn Coffelt (she'd remarried, then divorced, after Davis' death) was among those who applied for compensation. She thought the federal law was unambiguous: She was married to a Mallinckrodt nuclear worker, he was dead, and she was entitled to compensation. But for three years, the government at various times denied and delayed her application.
"You're thinking you're gonna get it," Coffelt says. "Then different things come up and they need this and they need that so you have to run and try and get it. You get really down, there were days I just cried."
Denise Brock couldn't understand why her mother was having such a hard time collecting on the claim. Angry that her elderly mother was encountering so many obstacles, she began making inquiries. What she found surprised her. It wasn't just her mother who was getting the runaround: Everybody connected with Mallinckrodt who'd filed a claim was having similar problems.
It was time to organize.
At first blush, Denise Brock is an unlikely expert on nuclear-weapons production, health studies and the federal bureaucracy. She lives in a trailer in Moscow Mills with her ironworker husband Dallas Brock. At 43, she has two daughters and a one-year old granddaughter.
But she's also a survivor. She's been through two marriages and is on her third. She went back to school and earned an associate degree in psychology; she's worked in factories, for lawyers and a bail bondsman, and even had a stint as a cop in Lincoln County. "I'm very strong willed," she says, and notes that it was that very trait that caused her to butt heads with her father as a child. "I tortured that poor man."
When Brock first heard about the nuclear-worker compensation act on the evening news in 2000, she thought that maybe her mother's luck was taking a long-overdue turn for the better. She told her mother; her brother Chris took Evelyn Coffelt to an informational meeting at the Millennium Hotel in downtown St. Louis. Only about twenty people attended, but what Coffelt heard gave her hope: If she could prove that her husband worked in Mallinckrodt's uranium division between 1942 and 1966 and was ill or had died from a cause linked to radiation exposure, she could collect $150,000 under Part B of the federal law. (Another section of the law, Part D, allows sick workers to ask a physicians' review panel to determine whether their illnesses were linked to radiation exposure. If the answer was yes, then they'd recommend to the state that the person receive workers' comp benefits. The problem is that a state isn't forced to go along with the program. Only fourteen states have agreed to it, and Missouri isn't one of them.) When Coffelt went to the meeting three years ago, it all seemed very straightforward. Based on the presentations, sick workers, widows, and the children of dead Mallinckrodt employees understood that getting a check wouldn't require more than filling out a few forms.
They were wrong.
The first hurdle was proving employment at Mallinckrodt -- a problem of which company spokesperson June Fowler says she's not aware. According to former workers, the company, now a division of Tyco International Ltd., often responds to their requests by claiming that the records can no longer be found.
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