Bob Warren - A lawyer helping Savannah River Site workers
COLUMBIA, SC -- Members of a federal health advisory board expressed frustration Wednesday that the government has failed for years to decide whether many ex-Savannah River Site employees should be compensated for the life-threatening illnesses the workers contracted while on the job.
Some SRS workers have waited more than a decade to learn whether they will receive benefits to help pay medical bills after they were exposed to radiation at the nuclear weapons plant near Aiken. Attorneys for many ex-employees have petitioned the government to declare those working at SRS after 1972 to be eligible for benefits.
The federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health must make a recommendation to the government on the request to provide benefits. But critics say a federal agency charged with providing data to the board has done a poor job of keeping the panel informed.
During a meeting Wednesday, advisory board chairman James Melius and board member Brad Clawson said some workers have waited too long for answers on whether they will receive compensation.
“It is sort of a fundamental issue, I think, of fairness,’’ Melius said. “Somebody submits a petition, there ought to be some timely completion of the information that would allow the board to even evaluate’’ the matter.
At issue is a federal program many say is so complicated that deserving workers can’t get compensation the government promised them for illnesses they suffered as a result of working at atomic weapons complexes across the country. Ex-workers and their families are eligible for benefits of up to $400,000.
But getting records to prove the doses of radiation each worker received has been difficult. For that reason, the government can declare that all workers are eligible if the presence of a nuclear material is unquestioned. The government did that in 2012 for those who worked at SRS in 1972 and earlier. Lawyers are seeking the same status for those who worked there after 1972.
Clawson said former SRS workers and their families are being hurt by the delay in deciding whether to declare that status. Some are dying before getting word on whether they’ll receive benefits, he said.
“I’m at my wits’ end,’’ Clawson said. “I don’t know which way to be able to go.’’
Who is responsible for the delay is a matter of dispute.
Both Melius and Clawson stopped short of blaming the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, for failing to provide records to the board. But lawyers representing sick workers at SRS didn’t have any trouble making that argument. They accused the agency of dragging its feet.
The attorneys late last year received more than 1,300 pages of previously classified government documents that they say make the case to compensate the workers. South Carolina lawyer Josh Fester said NIOSH has had records needed by the advisory board for at least four years.
“NIOSH has had access to these documents,’’ Fester told the advisory board.
The occupational safety agency, in a statement after Wednesday’s meeting, indicated it is not to blame for the delays and has done its best to provide information. But the agency declined to respond directly to criticism.
“"I would rather not provide an opinion about the fairness of the criticism,’’ said Stuart Hinnefeld, director of the agency’s Division of Compensation Analysis and Support. In an email to The State, he said “there have been times when we have had trouble getting information from the Department of Energy, but it would be unfair to say that’s the only reason for the delay.”
Fester, along with lawyers Bob Warren and Warren Johnson, say the government needs to declare most of the SRS workers who were exposed to thorium after 1972 eligible for federal benefits. Based on the advisory board’s opinion, the federal government in 2012 declared those working there before 1973 eligible for benefits because of thorium exposure.
The documents the lawyers obtained show that thorium, a radioactive metal that can cause cancer, existed in larger quantities on the site than federal officials previously had admitted. But the U.S. Department of Energy didn’t have a screening program strong enough to determine if an indvidual worker’s exposure contributed to his or her illness, said Warren, a lawyer from Black Mountain, N.C.
Both Warren and Johnson said it’s encouraging that the advisory board heard their criticism, but Johnson said he’s also heard that before.
“That’s the attitude we’ve had since the beginning: that we’ll work on it,’’ Johnson said.