Friday, October 22, 2004

Will they be paid before they die?

By Dan Klepal
Enquirer staff writer

George Bassitt of Hamilton worked at Fernald as a chemical operator for 37 years and suffers numerous health problems he traces to the plant. Now retired, he has written countless letters to government officials seeking help. He said he is doubtful that promises of speedier action on health claims will actually happen.
CROSBY TWP. - One by one, George Bassitt's friends are dying. They are casualties, he says, of the Cold War - years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Bassitt, 75, is one of about 7,000 men and women who worked at the Fernald plant in northwest Hamilton County, a place where the federal government melted raw ore in acid baths to get at the uranium inside. From 1952 until 1989, the uranium produced at Fernald helped fuel the country's nuclear weapons program.

A chemical operator for 37 years, Bassitt routinely worked over radioactive uranium, acids and other hazardous chemicals, usually with nothing more than a pair of gloves and coveralls for protection.

Bassitt, of Hamilton, is one of more than 1,100 retired Fernald workers who have filed claims with the federal government, hoping to receive cash for the cancer, respiratory ailments, lost wages and disabilities they say resulted from their work.

Three years after compensation programs were created, more than 70 percent of the Fernald claims are languishing in a bureaucratic maze. Fewer than 100 have been paid. The rest have been denied or recommended for denial.

"They're taking too long," Bassitt said. "Anybody who stood over that stuff, breathing it every day, they should be paid."

Here's a look at the number of compensation claims filed by retired Fernald workers, or their family members, since 2001. Multiple family members can file separate claims on behalf of one retired worker.
• Number of claims: 1,165
• Number paid: 93
• Amount: $11.1 million
• Average paid per claim: $119,354
Source: U.S. Department of Labor
Government officials acknowledge they have been slow to process the claims, particularly those from Fernald workers. That is about to change, they say, for two reasons:

• A "site profile," designed to help determine how much radiation workers were exposed to at Fernald, was completed this spring. That study is necessary so Department of Labor officials can use a mathematical formula to determine if there is a 50-percent chance or better that the ailment was caused by their work. The program offers a lump sum payment of $150,000 and lifetime medical coverage.

• A second compensation program, meant to pay workers for lost wages and disabilities, was transferred Oct. 8 from the Department of Energy to the Department of Labor. Politicians, including Sens. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, became frustrated with the Department of Energy after that agency spent $95 million to administer the program over three years but approved only 31 claims from more than 25,000 filed nationwide.

Moving the program under the Department of Labor's jurisdiction should speed the process, officials say.

"Operationally, it was an absolute disaster," Bunning said. "Labor has much more experience handling illness claims, so we'll get good and prompt findings with them."

Bassitt isn't so sure. He worked in every building at the sprawling 1,050-acre Fernald site during his career.

He suffers from a variety of respiratory ailments and has lost 25 percent of his lung capacity. He's had a heart attack and a stroke, lost a gallbladder and a kidney, and has undergone open-heart surgery.

But Bassitt is lucky. Unlike many of his peers, he doesn't suffer from cancer.

The federal government admitted in 1988 that contamination at Fernald was a health threat, to both workers and nearby residents.

Kevin Clausing, a Department of Energy employee, is manager at a Portsmouth resource center where retired workers from Ohio's three uranium plants can get information or help in filing their claims. There are 10 such resource centers around the country.

He believes recent developments will help the retired Fernald workers. A year ago, 17 Fernald claims had been paid. Today that number is 90. Two months ago, $8 million had been paid to former workers. Now, the total paid out is $11.8 million.

"The cases are moving now," he said. "I understand the frustration and the skepticism. The question that comes is: Can you honestly say - based on the information provided by the Department of Energy about what types of materials were used at the plant, how many accidents there were, and how many releases took place - the (site profile) is fair?

"I don't know that anybody can answer that."

Count Rose Marie Waterman among the skeptical.

The 54-year-old White Oak resident was one of the few women to work in the Fernald production area. Her job for two years in the 1980s was to compile an inventory of materials in all of the Fernald plants and log them into a computer. Her work took her to every building at the site.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2001, Waterman is appealing the denial of one claim and awaiting word on another. She said the government got the facts of her case wrong in explaining why she was denied. She believes chemotherapy has led to problems with her limbs and major organs. She blames the Department of Energy for not telling her she was exposed to radiation while working at Fernald. That information would have changed her doctor's approach to treating the cancer.

Waterman says it's hard to muster the strength to battle the federal government while she's also battling cancer.

"I can appreciate the hope everyone seems to have in Labor taking over the program, but they've been offering hope to us on a plate for three years," she said. "To ask a very sick person to rebuff the federal government - I've got to be an attorney, a fact finder and make my own case - that's a little far-fetched. ... "Stress is one of the worst things for a cancer patient. I'm not going to be around much longer unless I get some real help."


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