Nuclear workers revive rejected petition

-A A +A
By Roger Snodgrass

ALBUQUERQUE – A presidential advisory board took only a few minutes before deciding to keep alive a petition on behalf of a large contingent of past and present nuclear workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory.


The Advisory Board on Worker Health and Radiation heard both sides of the case involving compensation for LANL service support workers from 1976 through 2005. The board members discussed it briefly and then voted unanimously to study it more carefully.


Two weeks ago the National Institute for Occupational Safety returned a negative verdict on a worker petition under the Energy Employee Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA).


The report came in two months late, which left only a narrow window of time for the petitioner to prepare a response before this meeting.


Questioned by board member Mark Griffin, NIOSH Health Physicist Gregg Macievic attributed the delay to LANL managers who needed more clarification.


“Upper management wasn’t quite sure what we wanted,” Macievic said. “The doors opened up in October and then we got what we wanted.”


Macievic reviewed NIOSH’s contention that sufficient information exists to reconstruct radiation doses for LANL workers during that period, despite admitting to potential dose reconstruction issues as a basis for qualifying the petition for evaluation in May 2008.


The petition brought by Andrew Evaskovich, a security guard at the laboratory, argued on the contrary that NIOSH’s review had failed to make a convincing case for a class of workers that included firefighters, laborers, custodians, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, maintenance workers, and others.


Evaskovich’s petition cited a number of incidents for which witness affidavits asserted that workers without protective equipment were assigned to areas in which others were using the protection; that little or no urine sampling; that whole-body counting was conducted more infrequently for LANL service support workers; that the Cerro Grande Fire was one big unmonitored or inadequately monitored exposure event, not countin known and admitted air quality monitoring failures that continued until a court-ordered crackdown; and apart from the most common radionuclides, the effects of neutrons and numerous exotic emissions were not properly monitored.


The compensation program passed originally in 2000. Amended since then, EEOICPA allows for a $150,000 lump sum payment and medical expenses for employees in a designated special cohort who have developed any of 22 kinds of cancer, without a full dose reconstruction. The provision recognized that complete medical histories were not always available from the Department of Energy sites.


NIOSH, an agency under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is in charge of the dose reconstruction work and exemptions. NIOSH had previously accepted petitions for the Special Exposure Cohort (SEC) status assigned to LANL workers from 1943 to 1975 and a class of workers who employed at the radiation-lanthanum facility in Bayo Canyon between Sept. 1, 1944 and July 8, 1963.


On behalf of the current evaluation, Macievic argued that there was a way to reconstruct doses for the workers of the class by using surrogate, “co-worker” data to bound upper and lower limits of radioactive intakes by unmonitored workers.


He offered two examples to demonstrate how the sample dose reconstruction could be used to determine, in one case, a low probability of causation for an immunoproliferative disease, and in another case, a high probability of causation for a liver cancer.


Evaskovich was introduced by former Sen. Harriet Ruiz, the widow of Ray Ruiz, a former LANL worker and state senator who died of a radiation-related cancer. She championed the petition, ultimately approved by NIOSH in July 2007, that created the SEC for the first 22 years of the laboratory’s operations..


Evaskovich opened his presentation with the video trailer for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Dr. Atom, based on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.


He said he wanted to give some idea of how unique Los Alamos was, and first thought about the question in terms of the lab’s geography, its topology and its people.


After showing the piece from YouTube, he said, “I feel pretty confident that no other site has had an opera written about the work that was conducted there.” Representatives of New Mexico’s two U.S. Senators and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., spoke on behalf of the petition.


Michele Jaquez-Ortiz read a statement by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M, recounting his eight-year involvement with the issue as a congressman, going back to the first public hearings in New Mexico in 2000.


She said Udall was speaking, “on behalf of his New Mexico constituents, many of whom are sick and dying while awaiting compensation as a result of their work at LANL.”


After the presentations, board member James Melius, director of the New York State Laborers Health and Safety Trust Fund, moved to have the board’s own work group on Los Alamos and the board’s independent contractor, SC & A, study the matter further.