As he read the bureaucratic notice that arrived in the mail one day three years ago, Dale Johns realized his decade-long wait was ending.
The federal government had finally admitted that its effort to win the Cold War sickened Johns’ father with colon cancer, which eventually killed him. In the notice was confirmation that the family would receive $275,000 as compensation for the illness Gordon Johns contracted at the Savannah River Site.
“I called a meeting with my brother and sister; we just sat there and cried,’’ Dale Johns said. ‘’We couldn’t believe it after all this time.’’
But today, Dale Johns can’t understand why it took the federal government so long to decide.
His father was among scores of former SRS employees whose families say a government program set up to help sick nuclear workers turned into a bureaucratic mess of paperwork and denials.
In many cases, former atomic weapons plant workers died before the government decided on their claims for benefits under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation program.
Sometimes the compensation program approved money years after a former Department of Energy worker’s death. Other times, the government turned down requests for compensation from those who needed it most: people battling serious ailments and rising medical bills.
The effort it took to receive compensation wasn’t expected in 2002, when Gordon Johns and a handful of other former SRS workers spoke to The State newspaper about their expectations for the compensation program.
Some of those profiled in 2002, including Johns, said they hoped to receive compensation for illnesses they suffered during decades of work at SRS. All had worked in areas they described as full of radiation and chemicals.
Among them was Aiken-area resident Robert Lee Kelly, who died in 2002. He suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung ailment that made him gasp for breath. Before his death, he blamed working conditions at SRS for his illness.
“We are still, to this day, trying to get compensated for it,’’ said Kelly’s daughter, Sheeinee Goss.
Others interviewed by The State for the newspaper’s 2002 story also have died. Their families received compensation, but interviews and records reviewed by The State recently show that in some cases, it took years.
In 2000, Congress developed the energy workers compensation program after acknowledging the sacrifices many had made working in the bowels of nuclear weapons plants after World War II. At the time, national leaders called these workers heroes, offering compensation to acknowledge illnesses the workers had developed from radiation and chemicals during the Cold War weapons production effort.
But records show that thousands of former Department of Energy workers have faced an arduous task to receive compensation. More than 2,200 SRS workers have spent five years or more going through the claims process, according to an analysis by the McClatchy newspaper company, which owns The State.
U.S. Department of Labor records analyzed by McClatchy show that more than 1,400 SRS employees died after they filed for benefits through the government compensation program. But of those, only 582 of the claims eventually were approved, McClatchy found after analyzing millions of Department of Labor records.
In one case, a crane operator at SRS was denied compensation 10 times from 2001 to 2015, McClatchy found. The employee had a variety of skin cancers, brain cancer and nodular lymphoma.
Another SRS worker, a pipefitter, waited more than 13 years before the government awarded compensation for exposure to asbestos, records show.
“The system isn’t working,’’ said Bob Warren, a North Carolina lawyer who represents people claiming illness from exposure to toxins at SRS.
Warren, who first represented a sick SRS worker in the 1970s, long before the compensation program started, said the effort to prove a case for compensation is time-consuming.
Many ex-employees have had trouble obtaining enough records to convince the federal government that their illnesses were tied to toxic exposure at SRS, Warren said. Other times, records showing the amount of radiation a worker was exposed to have been inaccurate, Warren said.
“It’s hard to even imagine a more complicated system,’’ Warren said. “As a result of the complications, it ends up taking a long time to do a dose reconstruction.’’
Some people say the compensation program is a gravy train for ex-employees. Cancer can be caused by a variety of factors aside from radiation and chemicals that workers were exposed to at SRS, they say.
Bill Lawless, a former member of the Savannah River Site Citizens Advisory Board, said the government can’t afford the multibillion dollar compensation program when it needs to clean up nuclear waste at SRS.
“My fear is they are looking at this as a great opportunity to get some money;’’ Lawless said of those seeking compensation.
“I thought it was ludicrous when Congress passed this. It is sucking money away from things that are much more important.’’
The federal compensation program has several main components. One of them grants certain classes of workers approval for compensation, depending on what they were exposed to, without requiring extensive and time-consuming research. Relatively few people in those classes worked at SRS, although a 2012 policy change has eased the rules for some workers at the site near Aiken.
Others still must seek compensation through tougher methods, including one known as a “dose reconstruction.’’ That is a federal study to determine whether radiation contributed to a person’s illness.
But federal decisions are based on whether workers can show that there is at least a 50 percent chance that radiation exposure caused cancer. And because records aren’t easy to get, many people have been unable to prove their cases to the government’s satisfaction, Warren said.
The U.S. Department of Labor, which administers the program, defended its efforts.
When the program started in 2001, the government expected to approve 25 percent of the claims filed. But as it turns out, the government has approved more than 40 percent of the claims, labor department spokesman Lindsay Williams said in a Nov. 18 email to The State newspaper.
All told, the government has spent $12 billion on payouts and medical expenses for about 53,000 workers across the country, according to McClatchy’s research.
“We believe that overall it has worked as intended, and in fact many more people have received benefits than anticipated,’’ Williams’ email said.
Williams’ email emphasized that the government has sharply reduced the time it takes to decide cases. The department also says it is working to improve the program even more.
But Nancy King Whitman, a West Columbia resident, said the labor department program was more difficult to maneuver than another federal compensation program she is familiar with.
Her first husband died of colon cancer in 1996 after working 36 years at SRS. She applied for survivor’s benefits in 2002. A decade later, she received notice that she had been approved for $275,000 through the labor department program.
Her second husband, who had applied for compensation for injuries he sustained from Agent Orange in Vietnam, received benefits within a year from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, she said. Whitman’s second husband, who also has died, was approved for the money in 2011, she said.
“That kind of blows your mind, doesn’t it?’’ Whitman said.
Death and frustration
Robert Lee Kelly, a father of three, started a small general store near SRS in the 1950s to supplement the salary he earned as a construction and maintenance worker at the nuclear weapons complex outside Aiken. The store, Kelly’s Hilltop, was one of the few black-owned businesses of its kind in the area at the time.
But after years of working at SRS and running the store, Kelly began to feel the effects of his job at the 310-square-mile site near the Georgia border, records show.
By 1988, a lung disorder was beginning to bother him, even though records show he didn’t smoke. He began wheezing and struggling to breathe, sometimes spending a week or more in an Augusta hospital. At one point, Kelly said, he had five doctors “keeping me living,’’ a Department of Energy hearing transcript shows.
After learning of the federal compensation program in 2000, he applied for federal benefits. He hoped a favorable award would bring revenue that could help him and his wife, Bernice, pay bills.
Records show he was turned down.
Kelly died at age 74 in August 2002, and his family again filed for compensation, records show. By early 2004, the government had denied the family’s request for benefits. The Department of Labor twice said the Kellys had not proven that he had contracted a SRS-related illness that qualified for benefits.
Sheeinee Goss, his daughter, whose family still runs the general store her father started, said the government hasn’t fulfilled its promise to help people sickened at SRS.
“It’s very frustrating because when we first found out about the program, and being that my father was ill, we (thought) it would be a smooth transition,’’ she said. “But it just hasn’t been that.
“Employees were committed to SRS and, in return, because they are experiencing health problems and complications, the site should be committed to employees now,’’ she continued. “It’s important for my mom. It would help her with her day-to-day living. I do believe a lot of his health problems resulted from actually working on site.’’
Before he died, Kelly said he was exposed to toxins at SRS, in areas that contained tritium, asbestos and other hazardous materials. At one point, he wore a plastic suit for seven consecutive days, working in a section of SRS called the “Hot Canyon.’’ He had to work that schedule because nobody was available to replace him, according to the transcript of a Department of Energy hearing in December 2000.
Five months before his death in August 2002, Kelly told The State newspaper that he worked in an area of SRS where chemical levels were so high “it would burn your eyes and burn your skin. It was terrible over there.’’
Glowing pipes, big reward
Mervin Russell, a Bamberg resident, worked around glowing, radioactive pipes in his years at the Savannah River Site.
One of his jobs was to haul the pipes from pools of water so that other employees could repair them. Russell also hauled radioactive material in trucks to a burial ground at SRS, Russell told The State newspaper for a story published on May 19, 2002.
That’s part of the reason he hoped to gain compensation through the federal program, said Russell, who was 78 when he spoke to the newspaper. He had done his part to help win the Cold War and had gotten colon and lung cancer while working at SRS, he said.
“Mervin told me he worked in some hot stuff, so I guess that’s where the cancer came from,’’ his widow, Cecily Russell, said recently. “Just like our servicemen, they sacrificed a lot’’ at SRS.
When he died in 2006, the government had paid him about half of the $275,000 he was to receive because of his illness, she said. That had taken two to three years, she said. But the remainder of the money didn’t come in until after he died, she said.
Despite that, Cecily Russell said her husband wasn’t bitter about the illness tied to working at SRS – and unlike others, she doesn’t think the government program was cumbersome.
Government employees “would keep calling him and touching base with him,’’ she said. “To my knowledge, it wasn’t that long and it wasn’t that difficult. He was so thankful for it.’’
Gale Lynsky, whose father, Robert Eley, worked at SRS, remembers the struggles he faced late in his life.
Eley, who lived in Twin City, Ga., was a robust, athletic type who became ill after working at the Savannah River Site. In the final 10 years of his life, he used an oxygen tank to breathe at night. Before he died, Eley told The State he had asbestosis.
“He was embarrassed having to use oxygen,’’ Lynsky said. “He had been very athletic. He had played ball up until he was almost 50 years old.’’
In 2002, as the compensation program was getting started, Eley told The State that he was subjected to heavy doses of radiation from his work as a nuclear reactor operator.
He died on July 16, 2006, at the age of 82. He received compensation before he died, although Lynsky said she remembers few details.
She wasn’t sure how difficult the process was for her father, but Eley was glad the money came through. The money helped take care of her mother, Lynsky said.
“It took a lot of the load off his mind as far as worrying about’’ her mother, Lynsky said.
Another SRS worker interviewed by The State in 2002, Bill Brunson, also has died, but his immediate family declined to talk about their experience other than to acknowledge that he had been compensated within a few years.
Brunson’s brother, Joe, said he also worked at the Savannah River Site and received $150,000 in compensation for cancer. He said the program worked well for him. He recalls receiving his money in about a year’s time, he said.
For Dale Johns, the federal process for receiving compensation remains a source of mystery and dismay.
His family’s request for help was turned down twice in 2009, seven years after the family filed for benefits under the federal program, records show. The government said, in one denial, that the likelihood Gordon Johns’ work at SRS caused his cancer was less than 50 percent, Dale Johns said.
The family questioned those decisions, even contacting several South Carolina lawmakers to express concern about the slow pace.
In each case, lawmakers turned the complaints back over to the Department of Labor, he said. Dale Johns said he contacted the office of then-U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C. He said he could not remember which congressman he contacted.
“They didn’t do anything,’’ he said. Through the years, federal workers would periodically contact the Johns family to let them know they were re-evaluating the case because they’d received more information. But each time they re-evaluated the case, Dale Johns said, he received bad news.
Federal workers “told me anything over 50 percent and you can get compensation, but it always fell in that 40 to 45 percent range,’’ Dale Johns said.
Then, the news came in 2012 that caused joyful weeping in the Johns family – a decade after he died at age 76.
Records show the reason the family of Johns, a former SRS maintenance worker, received money was a change in federal policy about who qualified for compensation.
In 2012, Warren’s law office helped persuade a panel at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to recommend a class of former Department of Energy workers as eligible for compensation.
Those people, who had certain types of cancers and who worked a certain number of days at SRS between 1953 and October 1972, no longer had to prove they had developed ailments while employed at the federal weapons complex.
“You don’t hear from them for several years, then you get a letter saying that all of a sudden they recommended compensation,’’ Dale Johns said. “We were glad.’’
Francis Matt of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this story.