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Byline: Kerry Cavanaugh Staff Writer

Five years after President Bill Clinton pledged billions of dollars to former nuclear employees who got sick from their Cold War-era jobs, just seven of the nearly 600 claims filed by workers at the Santa Susana Field Lab and other local facilities have been compensated.

The U.S. Department of Labor, which is responsible for doling out the payments, has struggled with a backlog of 20,000 claims nationwide.

But in the cases of men and women who worked on nuclear power research at the field lab and former North American Aviation facilities in Canoga Park, Chatsworth and Downey, their applications were stalled for several years by legal wrangling over who was eligible for the money. The operations were taken over by Rocketdyne and eventually Boeing.

Among them is John Pace, who applied for compensation for lung damage he believes resulted from radiation exposure and inhaling toxic chemicals while cleaning up the nuclear reactor meltdown at the lab in 1959.

``I sure don't appreciate the delays in it. They should recognize the fact that a lot of people were harmed from working there and they should do something about it,'' said Pace, 66.

``It'd be nice to get it over with so we could help those that have medical bills.''

Hundreds of local workers were denied or delayed compensation, while the Department of Labor and Department of Energy debated which workers qualified for the program.

The Department of Energy, which contracted with North American Aviation, tried to limit the compensation to a select group of employees who worked in a 90-acre section of the Santa Susana Field Lab.

As a result, many former employees who worked on Energy Department nuclear projects were denied compensation for illnesses they maintain were caused by radiation or toxic exposure. After four years of debate, the Department of Labor in September overruled the Department of Energy's decision and opened the program to everyone who worked at the Santa Susana Field Lab's Area IV and North American Aviation/Rockwell's Canoga Park, De Soto and Downey facilities.

That means more men and women who worked alongside nuclear reactors, and helped in the development of reliable power for space exploration and satellites, now have a shot at federal compensation.

Department of Labor officials are reviewing all cases that were denied earlier, and are trying to reach sick employees, many of whom are in their 70s, to let them know about the program changes.

``It was a very sticky policy issue,'' said Peter Turcic, director of the Department of Labor's Division of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation.

``There are probably a lot of people who were under the assumption that if they didn't work within those 90 acres, then they didn't even apply.''

Much-needed money

For Charleen Roesch, money from the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program would help cover the medical expenses for her late husband, James, who died of cancer, and the legal fees from their unsuccessful fight for workers' compensation.

``That would mean I wouldn't have to worry. I wouldn't be a burden on my children. I would have a nest egg I could draw from instead of having to worry,'' she said.

James Roesch was an equipment mechanic and volunteer firefighter at the field lab from 1955 to 1967. He died in 1998 at age 62 from multiple myeloma, or cancer of the plasma cells.

Over the years, Roesch used potent chemical degreasers, like trichloroethylene, to clean valves, pumps and pipes used in rocket tests and nuclear reactors - often without gloves or other protective gear. Later he decontaminated test engines laden with hydrazine, a probable carcinogen.

In 1997, Roesch wrote a five-page work history, homing in on an incident in 1959 - the same year there was partial meltdown in the Sodium Reactor Experiment, the nation's first civilian nuclear power plant.

Roesch wrote that he was called to the reactor to put out a fire. He rushed in with a fire extinguisher but found only smoke. He saw large, twisted steel beams overhead and men in white smocks working in a small room.

``They looked quite surprised upon seeing me enter the room. One of them asked me what I was doing in there? I explained that I was looking for spot fires. He said, in what I would consider an almost panicked voice, 'There is no fire in here! Get out of here! Quick! Get out now.' I left.''

Afterward, the auxiliary firefighters were taken to a fire station, ordered to shower thoroughly and given company coveralls to wear home. They were told to have their wives launder the clothes that night.

Roesch wrote the work history in 1997, the year after he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a condition his doctor suggested could be work- related.

Roesch underwent chemotherapy and spent long periods in the hospital, racking up medical bills. He was denied workers' compensation, and hired an attorney to appeal the decision.

He died before the case went to trial, but his widow continued to press the case for three more years.

``The Boeing attorneys said they would never settle, they would take it to Supreme Court,'' Charleen Roesch said. ``It was very intimidating for a regular person, who had never been in a courtroom, to go through that.''

The judge overseeing the case died before issuing a decision, but a judge who took over the case ruled in 2001 that Roesch's illness was unrelated to his work at the field lab. Charleen was devastated by the decision and stopped her fight for compensation - until now.

Uninformed workers

It was for workers like James Roesch that Congress passed and Clinton signed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act in 2000.

The goal was to assess whether employees developed cancers and other illnesses from their work with radiation and toxic materials. If they did, workers and their survivors could claim up to $150,000.

Too often, nuclear workers in the 1950s and 1960s weren't informed of the risk or adequately protected. Later, the Department of Energy had a policy of encouraging its contractors to oppose workers' compensation claims filed by these Cold War workers, Clinton wrote in his executive order approving the act.

From the beginning, the compensation program had problems.

The Department of Labor was in charge of evaluating the claims of workers made sick from radiation exposure.

The Department of Energy was responsible for evaluating the claims of workers made sick from toxic exposure, and for helping them apply for workers' compensation from their state programs.

However, critics said the Department of Energy was reluctant to divert money from other projects to fund the program. The department soon developed a tremendous backlog, and secured payments for only 31 workers out of 23,000 claims.

In 2004 Congress voted to give the Department of Labor control of both radiation and toxic exposure claims. The DOE handed off 25,000 unresolved cases to the Department of Labor.

At the Santa Susana Field Lab, those problems were complicated by disagreements over which workers were eligible for the program.

The Department of Labor relied on the Energy Department and Boeing to confirm whether claimants worked on DOE projects.

But DOE and Boeing said only a small group of atomic workers was eligible for the compensation program, and they rejected many Rocketdyne division workers and other employees who may have been exposed.

Turcic, with the Department of Labor, said the issue was primarily a disagreement over how to interpret the law. After researching the issue and talking to workers, his division ruled that many other employees who worked on the nuclear research should be covered by the compensation program.

Steve Lafflam, director of safety, health and environmental affairs for Boeing, said the company never tried to limit coverage of employees.

``We follow their very strict guidelines. If they worked on a DOE contract, we verify employment.''

At least 150 radiation claims out of 581 claims have been denied, but the Department of Labor couldn't say how many workers were rejected because of the disagreement with DOE. Seven claims paid out roughly $1 million. The rest are unresolved.

Now, the Department of Labor has asked the DOE and Boeing to provide more detailed employment history information on claimants that have been denied. After workers prove they worked at one of the four DOE sites, they must show they developed an illness that can be linked to chemicals or radiation exposure at the site.

So far, the Department of Labor has awarded more than $1 billion in more than 16,000 claims nationwide. Former employees can receive up to $250,000 and their spouses and dependent children can receive up to $175,000.

The wait goes on

John Pace applied for compensation four years ago, hoping to show that his lung damage was linked to the toxic chemicals or radiation he inhaled during the year he worked at the Santa Susana Field Lab.

In 1958, Pace was 19 years old and training to be an atomic reactor operator on the Sodium Reactor Experiment. It was a good opportunity and he was eager to learn how to take readings on gauges and monitor reactor operations.

But he was worried about radiation, especially after he helped clean up the reactor after the meltdown in 1959. He remembers using pads dipped in soap or chemicals to clean the floors, and being checked every night to see if he had ``hot spots'' on his clothing or body.

``You can't see it, the only way you can tell is with a Geiger counter. All you're doing is cleaning up something that's invisible, so we went around with a Geiger counter, cleaning,'' Pace recalled.

``It was a very unusual time and scary, too, because you're working with something you can't see, smell or taste.''

Pace worked at the lab for only a year, but he soon developed lung problems and found he was extremely sensitive to strong-smelling chemicals and perfumes. His lungs would tense up and he would often develop bronchitis.

Also, his wife suffered five miscarriages in the seven years after Pace worked at the field lab, and his doctor suggested radiation exposure could have damaged his reproductive system.

Pace applied for the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, and was tested for beryllium disease, which is lung scarring caused by inhaling the dust of beryllium, a metal used in industrial operations. He tested negative.

Pace, now retired and living in Idaho, hopes after four years of delays he'll hear from the Department of Labor soon. He'd like to use the money to visit a specialist to assess his lung condition.

``They put my stories down and put my records down, and from that point on it's been a waiting game. I'm in limbo. I would sure like to be able to have some compensation for the damage to my lungs.''

Kerry Cavanaugh, (818) 713-3746



For more information on the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, call the resource center in Livermore, Calif., at (866) 606-6302. To check a claim, call the Department of Labor's Seattle district office at (888) 805-3401.


photo, 2 boxes


(color) Charleen Roesch holds photos of late husband James, who worked at the Santa Susana Field Lab from 1955 to 1967.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer


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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 13, 2005

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