Associated Press Writer
(AP) - When ailing workers or their survivors sue federal
contractors over exposure to deadly chemicals or radioactive
material at weapons plants, taxpayers routinely get the company's
The arrangement often frustrates those whom former Energy
Secretary Bill Richardson liked to call Cold War veterans.
"It's terrible,'' said Corrilla Kelly, the widow of a 27-year
veteran of the Fernald uranium processing plant in southwest Ohio.
"How do you fight all the money of the government?''
Her late husband, Herbert Kelly, spent eight years trying to get
workers compensation for lung cancer he blamed on his workplace. He
was challenged at every turn by government-reimbursed lawyers who
suggested his illness was caused by cigarettes he had given up 15
years before getting sick.
David Norgard, who worked at Brush Wellman Corp.'s Elmore, Ohio,
plant and is suing the beryllium maker, said "it really did hit
hard'' to learn the government reimburses the company for legal
"It's very upsetting,'' he said. "I think the company was
responsible and the company ought to pay.''
Workers suing Brush contend the company could have done more to
protect them from an incurable lung disease blamed on exposure to
beryllium, a metal used in nuclear weapons production.
Brush maintains that, through the years, it tried to protect the
health of its workers based on what was known at the time. It also
said it has helped employees with confirmed Chronic Beryllium
Disease get state workers compensation.
"To our knowledge, there is no current or former Brush Wellman
employee with confirmed CBD who have not been successful in
establishing a workers' compensation claim,'' said Hugh D. Hanes,
the company's vice president for government relations.
Some of the workers suing say that's not enough.
Brush spokesman Patrick Carpenter said it was company policy not
to discuss litigation, but that it defends lawsuits aggressively and
pursues indemnification from the government whenever allowed by its
For decades, military contracts have allowed companies that
handle dangerous or radioactive material to be reimbursed for
responding in court or before state workers compensation boards to
employees who blame their illnesses on workplace exposure. Taxpayers
also pick up the tab for lawyers to fight claims by weapons plant
How much the government has reimbursed Brush, other vendors, and
the companies that ran its weapons plants during the Cold War era
has not been documented.
The Energy Department has no estimate, and because of the
transition to the new administration could not make an official
available to discuss the issue.
The last time congressional auditors looked at the issue, in
1994, the General Accounting Office found that reimbursing
contractors for the cost of litigation - not including the cost of
fighting workers compensation claims - was $40 million in fiscal
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by
lawyers for some of the workers showed that in just a handful of
large cases, including a class action suit against the former
operators of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state,
the government has paid outside lawyers more than $94 million.
"In a normal lawsuit, the cost of litigation is part of the
reasoning that goes into settling,'' said Louise Roselle, a
Cincinnati lawyer who represents weapons plant workers and neighbors
in lawsuits against the contractors.
"These lawyers have no incentive to settle, and the government
doesn't seem to care. We have four cases in this firm that are 10
years old or older. All four involve weapons plants,'' she said.
"They could have settled a lot of cases for the money they've
"It gives the contractors essentially unlimited resources to
fight individual workers,'' agreed David Michaels, the Energy
Department's top health official under Richardson.
"But I could make the argument either way. The companies were
paid lots of money to do this work, but their specifications were
set by the federal government, which assumed a responsibility for
what happened,'' he said.
Some of the companies involved in the Manhattan Project, which
developed the first atomic bomb, worked for $1 a year but insisted
on indemnification from lawsuits.
Subsequent contractors were better paid for the dangerous,
secretive work, but also were indemnified.
In recent years, the Energy Department's legal office has reined
in reimbursements for fighting workers with illness claims, Michaels
said. A new law passed late last year also ordered the government to
stop fighting claims from workers with specific illnesses that are
easily connected to on-the-job exposure at a weapons plant.
For others, the new law instructs the government to stop fighting
the claims if special medical boards rule in the workers' favor.
Those boards, have not yet been set up.