Sunday, July 20, 2008

TEMPLE: Nuke workers need help not silence

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Quest for aid: George Tutt, 75, a former uranium miner who suffers from a severe lung condition, discusses his battle for government compensation, at his house in Shiprock, N.M., as his son Davis, 28, listens.

Quest for aid: George Tutt, 75, a former uranium miner who suffers from a severe lung condition, discusses his battle for government compensation, at his house in Shiprock, N.M., as his son Davis, 28, listens.

They built the nuclear weapons that helped win World War II and the Cold War.

When the nation's future depended on them, they stood firm.

Now where is their government when they need its help?

I believe in the goodness and generosity of the American people.

If more of them knew the story of suffering we're going to share beginning Monday, I don't believe they would feel comfortable with what's being done in their name.

It hurts to read "Deadly Denial," a three-day series by reporter Laura Frank and photographer Javier Manzano.

It's almost unbelievable what some of these cold warriors have been put through. How about receiving a denial of your medical claim on the same day you receive an acceptance? How about having your 1,600-page medical file lost until after your death? How about being told that it would be better not to speak up about your situation if you know what's best for you?

But then we at the Rocky have run into our own stonewall from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Silence is the response to questions about its administration of a program to compensate sick workers or their survivors. A silence eerily reminiscent of the silence thousands of workers have heard.

As I write this column, it's been 64 days since the Rocky requested an interview with the labor department executive who runs the program, Shelby Hallmark. It's been 36 days since we sent him a three-page memo detailing the findings of an investigation that began in January and builds on years of reporting by Laura.

We never received a response to our request for an interview. We didn't get a response to questions as basic as the date for a meeting we'd heard was scheduled in Denver.

This column is not about the difficulties of doing our job. But the response our journalists have received — as of today, a single paragraph defending the outlay of nearly $4 billion to "energy worker claimants" — reinforces for me why sick workers and their families would reasonably wonder whose side the government is on.

It seems officials are more interested in debating whether the Bush administration did more than the Clinton administration ever projected doing to help nuclear workers. As opposed to carrying out a clear directive from Congress in 2000 and again in 2004 to run a program that is "compassionate, fair and timely."

When you read our investigation and watch Javier's videos on our Web site, I find it hard to believe you will think that the program has been any of those things.

Yes, the government has compensated thousands of workers. But the majority have been denied financial compensation or help with their medical bills.

I didn't enter this story outraged.

As editor, I just believed it was important to examine whether the program was living up to its promise — or whether it was hollow.

The answer we found is disturbing.

It's disturbing when 33 percent of taxpayer money is eaten up by administrative expenses, when a comparable program, such as Social Security Disability, spends 2.5 percent.

It's disturbing when rules are changed midstream, with the result being that fewer workers are compensated.

It's disturbing when decade-old evidence that toxic exposure had made people sick is denied.

It's disturbing when a government agency takes its "no-pay list" and hides it in a secret database, citing national security in refusing to release the database.

It's disturbing when a bureaucracy seems inept.

But what's most troubling is that it appears that a government agency is working against the interests of the people it's ordered to serve — the only fathomable reason being that it saves taxpayers money by doing so.

"Deadly Denial" got its start in 2006 and 2007, when at public hearings we heard what claimants said they had to go through to get benefits. It seemed they were trying so hard to do what was asked of them, and then one hurdle after another was thrown in their path.

Laura has been covering the plight of nuclear workers since 1998. She was in Washington, D.C., when then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced the original effort. Until then, that department had denied workers had been hurt by exposure. Reporters were criticized for writing about the issue.

When the program was created in 2000, it marked an amazing about- face.

By 2004, the program had become a scandal. The Energy Department had spent $90 million administering its part of the effort and compensated only 32 people.

So the labor department got the job, with explicit instructions to be, as I told you before, "compassionate, fair and timely."

I believe I understand the meaning of those words. But today they sound cruelly ironic.

But you be the judge.

That's why I'm asking you to take the time to read the story Monday. Learn what has happened to your neighbors here and across the country involved in every step of fabricating our nuclear weapons.

Government agencies still are supposed to work for the people.

After reading our series, will you be satisfied with the way the Department of Labor is treating these men and women who stood up in our name?

I can't believe the answer will be yes.

And then the question becomes: What can we do about it?

John Temple can be reached at or by mail at 101 W. Colfax Ave., Suite 500, Denver, CO 80202.

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