Arms workers hail admission on exposure

January 30, 2000

New York Times photo
This Oak Ridge, Tenn., uranium plant is one of many where workers were exposed to radiation.
(New York Times photo)
The federal government's apparent willingness to compensate people who got cancer from working at America's nuclear weapons production sites hit home for two northwest Ohio residents.

Gary Renwand, Sr., of Oak Harbor, and Bob Ault, of Wayne, O., two victims of the often-fatal beryllium lung disease, said yesterday they were about as pleased as when the Clinton administration announced in July it would propose compensation for victims of their disease.

Mr. Renwand and Mr. Ault got the lung disease after working at Brush Wellman, Inc.'s, beryllium plant outside Elmore. Brush, based in Cleveland, is the nation's largest producer of beryllium, a metal used to help make nuclear weapons.

In what could be an historic admission of liability, the federal government appears willing to compensate thousands of workers who got cancer from making nuclear weapons, as well as those with the beryllium disease.

"I think they should be, too. . . . The government has lied all along with the industries," Mr. Renwand said.

"Why did it take the government so long to do something about it?" he asked. "The government's been hiding information it had for so many years. . .There's hidden things all over the country. What's going to happen next?"

Mr. Ault, who has lived with the beryllium lung disease since 1960, said he would be pleased if compensation is offered to both cancer victims and beryllium victims.

But he is not confident either will see money.

"I have already decided in my mind it's just a lot of noise. I haven't spent the money yet," he said.

According to the draft of a report written by the U.S. Department of Energy and the White House, the federal government knew it subjected workers to an unacceptable risk for cancer during the Cold War - yet did nothing to warn them.

The final report, described as the first time government officials have made such an admission, is due out in March.

An Energy Department official who asked not to be identified told The Blade yesterday that the Clinton administration's National Economic Council has spent months studying the issue of compensation for workplace-related cancer and chronic beryllium disease victims.

It announced plans to compensate beryllium disease victims first because the cause - beryllium dust - is easier to pinpoint, the Energy Department official said.

The upcoming report will support legislation to compensate cancer victims.

"This process is supposed to help get us there," the Energy Department official said.

Some 600,000 people have worked at 14 nuclear weapons plants since World War II. Hundreds of people are believed to have received cancer from job-related radiation and chemical exposure.

Twenty-two forms of cancer have been identified, including leukemia, Hodgkin's lymphoma, and those involving the prostate, kidney, and lung.

"It's not just radiation. It's radiation and chemicals," the Energy Department official said.

U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson: U.S. admits exposure.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, accompanying President Clinton to Switzerland, was not available for comment.

In a New York Times article published yesterday, Mr. Richardson acknowledged this is the first time the government is admitting that workers got cancer as a result of the exposure they received in weapons plants.

Sites noted in the draft report include several operations at Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Savannah River in South Carolina, Hanford in Washington state, Rocky Flats near Denver, the Fernald Feed Materials Center near Cincinnati, and at the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories.

Daniel J. Guttman, a Washington attorney who represents workers at 11 weapons factories, called it a "stunning" development, given the Energy Department's long history of denying responsibility.

"The [Energy Department] spent God knows how many millions of dollars fighting widows and orphans for years," said Mr. Guttman, who represents the Paper, Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers Union.

He presided over President Clinton's Advisory Commission on Human Radiation Experiments. The commission studied unauthorized plutonium tests the government did on civilians during the advent of the nuclear era.

"It's an admission that people were not only put at risk, but denied the information they needed to protect themselves and, in some cases, harmed," he said.

Mr. Guttman said there are many parallels between the upcoming report and the government plan to compensate beryllium victims.

Momentum for beryllium compensation was triggered by a six-part series The Blade published in March and April.

The series of articles, called Deadly Alliance, documented how the government and the beryllium industry risked the lives of workers by allowing them to be exposed to beryllium dust.

The series focused on Brush Wellman, Inc., the nation's leading beryllium producer, and its factory in Ottawa County, where at least 65 current or former workers have contracted the beryllium lung disease.

Brush spokesman Hugh Hanes said yesterday he sees little significance between the cancer draft report and the plan for beryllium compensation because beryllium is not radioactive.

He reiterated his company's position disputing a link between beryllium and cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, announced years ago it considers beryllium a cancer-causing substance.

Mr. Guttman said several recent developments in Washington have been inspired by The Blade series, including this one.

"I live in Washington, and I've heard about Toledo. I know about The Blade," Mr. Guttman said.

"This is a story that comes from the real people down in the bottom of Middle America. The reason the folks in the White House are doing what they are doing is because of the ground up, because the people who got the disease and because you guys covered it," he said.

"These things come from The Blade series, there's no question about it," Mr. Guttman added. "If it weren't for The Toledo Blade, there would be no beryllium legislation."

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