Despite ruling, NUMEC woes endure

By Mary Ann Thomas

Sunday, April 13, 2008

After a seven-year tussle with the federal government, the Department of Labor finally is cutting a $150,000 check to Skip McGuire of Parks Township for harmful exposures to radiation in the workplace.

McGuire, 77, is ailing: He had his right kidney removed, three heart attacks, lost his bladder and prostate to cancer and has had a defibrillator and a pacemaker installed.

"I'm still in one piece yet," he says.

Last year, former workers of the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. in Apollo were awarded special status with the government, entitling them to compensation for death, illness and injury caused by exposure to radiation and chemicals in the Apollo NUMEC plant, which created uranium fuel pellets for Navy nuclear reactors.

Just last week, workers from NUMEC's former plutonium processing facility in Parks Township were recommended for the same status. Final approve for them is expected before the end of summer.

Still, the government's tax-free lump sum and apology for injury is too little, too late for former workers yearning just to feel better.

While former employees from two nuclear fuel processing plants in the Apollo area have already collected $15.2 million in compensation from a federal program for workers of atomic weapon employers, McGuire, says unequivocally, "I'd rather have my health."

When he looks at his wife Evelyn, his voice grows softer, "When I get that money, I'm going to the jewelers."

McGuire pauses and he can barely get out the words without his voice cracking: "And I'm going to buy her a diamond."

The McGuires' story illustrates the tragedy and tenacity of lives forever changed and still haunted by illness.

They join the ranks of tens of thousands of former nuclear workers nationwide who have fallen ill because they were unknowingly exposed to harmful levels of radiation and chemicals while helping to build the considerable U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

Nationwide, there are about 360 facilities with employees who are eligible for the nuclear worker compensation. The program has paid out almost $3.7 billion to former workers of atomic weapons employers to date.

Mysterious industry

Given the stealth nature of the arms race between Russia and the United States from 1950s to 1970s, average citizens didn't realize that a vast network of private businesses were secretly contracted by the government to produce components for nuclear weapons, fuels and other products.

The Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. in Apollo with a plutonium facility in Parks Township was a dynamic private business that held numerous government contracts to develop and process a host of nuclear products including nuclear fuel to power the country's fleet of submarines.

The company's founder, Zalman Shapiro, helped to develop the nuclear reactor for the country's first nuclear-powered submarine and his company contributed to the country's military defense. But hundreds of his workers were contaminated by uranium, plutonium and chemicals.

They inhaled it. They ingested it. They got it on their skin and they took it home to their families.

"The nature of the beast is that you can't see it or taste it," said Larry Giunta, 65, of Buffalo Township who worked for NUMEC in the mid-1960s.

Giunta, along with many other former NUMEC employees needed the work and were thrilled to be part of the exciting nuclear industry. "It seemed like a good place to start a career," Giunta said of NUMEC.

"When you went in, it was very friendly. You didn't have an overwhelming fear of what you were doing. Everybody looked happy," he said.

Another former worker, Harold Cupec, 75, of Parks Township, said, "I had no clue. I didn't think about uranium. No one really explained it. You went in and started to work."

Although regulations protecting workers were minimal at the time, NUMEC racked up a long list of safety violations with the former Atomic Energy Commission.

But some workers tempted fate as well. Cupec said one employee used to set his lit cigarette in uranium dust. "Then he would blow off the dust and smoke it."

Moving on

By the time NUMEC (then owned by the Babcock & Wilcox) shuttered its doors and tore down its two plants in Apollo and Leechburg in the 1990s, a number of former workers fell ill.

"They were scared as they saw other workers get sick," said Patty Ameno, the Leechburg environmental activist who helped the workers win special status with the federal government.

"The workers had seen some things happen at the plant," Ameno said. "But that was their bread and butter. And many were left with small pensions and no health care from the company."

According to Ameno, the former NUMEC employees were not eligible for worker compensation because of state guidelines on radiation exposures.

And state laws prevented the workers from suing in federal court alleging death, ill health or property damage in the Apollo area because of the plant's nuclear operations.

But the former NUMEC workers weren't alone in their plight. Steady grassroots efforts and the beltway watchdog group, the Government Accountability Project, lobbied for the government to set up a compensation program for sick workers across the country.

Although the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act passed in 2000, many former workers had problems getting accepted.

The major issue was calculating a dose reconstruction, which mathematically determines if an individual worker was exposed to enough radiation to cause cancer.

For many workers, this was difficult to prove.

Detailed individual work records and plant monitoring information wasn't required, and if it did exist, it often times didn't survive from the 1950s and 1960s.

Then, some monitoring companies including one that NUMEC contracted with -- had been suspected of falsifying worker health reports.

Some workers claims -- including those of McGuire -- were held up for years because of problems with dose estimates and documentation.

"When I had my papers turned in on July 31, 2001," McGuire said, "I had a stack of paperwork that must have weighed 30 pounds. We spent our own money to pick up medical forms -- they charged us $1 a sheet."

After the federal program was created in 2000, McGuire, Cupec and Gary Walker of Vandergrift tried to track down former workers to let them know about the new federal program as they scrambled for their own health and work records.

Some of them met at the home of Philomena Newhouse, 83, of Parks Township, known as "Auntie Nuke" because of her lifelong commitment to community activism against contamination from the local nuclear fuel plants.

"They didn't know where to turn and what doctors to call," Newhouse said. Former workers credit her for contacting doctors and helping them gather documentation on their illnesses.

"I just got into it," Newhouse said modestly. "When that company first came to the Valley, we were proud. But it has brought nothing but death to this Valley."

Then Ameno, who spearheaded the civil lawsuits against the companies, bullied the federal government with paperwork and worker affidavits to bestow NUMEC workers with "special exposure cohort status." It's the government's term for a group of employees who sustained prolonged exposure to nuclear radiation and whose radiation dose cannot be accurately estimated.

The special worker designation nearly guarantees automatic acceptance of claims for a $150,000 payment and coverage of medical expenses for former workers who worked at the plants for at least 250 days and develop one of 22 specific cancers. Beryllium disease is treated separately.

NUMEC is one of only 26 former atomic weapons employer sites in the country to gain special exposure status for its employees.

"The workers at this site were very lucky that the documentation was intact," Ameno said. "And what kept this documentation intact was the federal civil lawsuit. It brought forth a lot of documents that otherwise wouldn't have made the light of day."

Ameno dipped into her substantial holdings of company memos and government reports documenting the conditions at NUMEC and B&W. Then She inundated the workers' program with paperwork and built an argument that won the former NUMEC employees back-to-back, unanimous recommendations for special status.

Last week, a federal health board unanimously recommended special status for workers from the Parks site to receive special workers status. Final approval from the secretary of Health and Human Services, and finally Congress could come as early as July, according to worker program official.

"In some aspects, when given the illnesses the workers have had and how it has depleted their health, bank accounts, their time and their enjoyment of life," Ameno said, "this will give them some semblance of vindication and accountability.

"But it leaves me with a bitter question. 'Why did our government allow this to happen and to continue?'"


Some highlights of NUMEC's violations of health and safety rules at the Parks plutonium-processing facility:

• After a glove box explosion in 1965, a federal inspection flagged the company for not conducting emergency drills four times per year as required. Following the glove box explosion, the fire and rescue team were exposed to radioactive materials above federal limits.

• Records of radiation-monitoring surveys were not maintained in three areas of the Parks facility as noted in a March 1966 inspection report.

• An undisclosed number of employees were not informed in writing of the nature and extent of their exposures as noted in a letter from the Atomic Energy Commission to NUMEC in January 1965.

• Personnel, who had already been exposed to excessive concentrations of radioactive material, received additional exposures to airborne plutonium between April 1, 1966, and Nov. 15, 1966. The AEC attributed the additional contamination to the company's inadequate evaluations of airborne contaminants in restricted areas.

• An employee was exposed to 5,000 times the limit for airborne uranium on April 25, 1974.

• In a 1973 inspection report, one employee was exposed to excessive amounts of airborne plutonium, and five employees were exposed to plutonium. The report didn't give the levels. NUMEC was cited by the federal government for reporting some of these incidents months after they occurred. Additionally, the company failed to conduct a survey to determine the full extent of at least one of the exposures.

• Some of the companies' instruments to detect radiation of workers were not calibrated in a 1972 inspection. Of 98 portable and semi-portable instruments available from Jan. 1 to Dec. 1, 1971, 63 instruments had not been calibrated since June 1971.

Source: Valley News Dispatch