PIKETON — An outcry of opposition from local governments and residents may or may not be enough to stop construction of a permanent on-site waste disposal facility – or radioactive trash dump, it’s proper title depending on your point of view – at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon.
But there is another battle being fought over the plant, a battle that has been going on for far longer and likely could be considered more intense and certainly more personal than any argument over the waste facility.
On a recent Tuesday, about 25 to 30 persons on the frontlines of that second battle gathered as they do once a month at Ritchie’s Marketplace Grocery and Restaurant in Piketon. All claim they are sick. Sadly, some claim they are dying. They all claim their sickness is a direct result of their employment at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, also commonly referred to as the A-Plant.
Among the visitors is “Julia,” not her real name. Julia complains of COPD, skin cancer and other issues. Her complaints are not unusual. “Henry,” again, not his real name, talks about hearing loss, COPD and possibly Parkinson’s disease. Henry says the hearing loss is due not to any loud noise inside of the plant, the same type of noise one might encounter in any industrial setting, but blames his hearing loss directly on chemicals to which Portsmouth workers were exposed, allegedly without their knowledge.
Vina Colley is becoming well-known as the leader of Portsmouth-Piketon Residents for Safety and Security (PRESS.) She says, while the government has denied some of Henry’s health claims, they have approved some payment for his hearing loss, supposedly specifically allowing that loss was due to some type of exposure other than noise in the plant.
As you might expect, Colley and the others have numerous complaints against the government and, specifically, the program that governs compensation for persons who worked in nuclear facilities of some type or another. “It’s worse than what the public knows,” Colley says. She and the others allege the government shredded, along with other documents, badges workers were required to wear. The badges were supposed to measure levels of exposure to radiation or chemicals. In the opinion of the workers, having access to those badges, or at least the records of what those badges measured, obviously would be extremely helpful in proving their health claims.
About halfway through an interview, Julia claims she isn’t doing well and needs to leave the restaurant. As the conversation continues among those still present, one major topic on the minds of some of the former workers, including Colley, is whether plutonium was present at the Piketon plant. Colley admits the government, specifically the Department of Energy (DOE), now readily acknowledges there was plutonium in the plant. But she also insists they lied about it for some time, and still claims any plutonium present was diluted. She produces a letter sent to the DOE from the offices of then-senators Mike DeWine and George Voinovich, which alleged the plant’s own records showed there was undiluted plutonium in the plant.
In terms of any compensation due to workers, whether there was plutonium in the plant or not, may be a moot point. Energy worker compensation for health problems is governed by the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA.) Under the act, the Department of Labor (DOL) uses a site metric system (known as the SEM) which is intended to spell out what substances were present at various DOE sites and what site work processes might have caused workers to be exposed to those substances. The SEM also lists health problems potentially resulting from any exposure. The Portsmouth plant SEM lists numerous specific buildings at the site where plutonium was present along with over a dozen different jobs which may have exposed workers to the substance.
Under the heading “specific health effects,” the SEM lists none, stating the National Institute of Health hazard map “has not identified any occupational disease related to exposure to the substance.”
A DOL spokesperson did not respond in time for the deadline for this issue to questions about how the DOL can claim occupational exposure to plutonium carries no risk for disease. As you might expect, the SEM is not very popular with Colley and her cohorts.
“As you know, the database was set up to help identify workers exposures, yet in practice is being leveraged to deny compensation,” Colley said during her April 26, 2016, testimony to a Washington, D.C. committee.
According to the DOL website, 5,646 workers have made claims connected to their work at the diffusion plant. The compensation act divides claims into a couple of different categories. For what are called Part B filings, 3,013 claims have been approved, while 3,059 were denied. For Part E claims, 3,079 were approved; 3,817 denied. Again, according to the DOL, of the top 20 DOE sites nationwide where workers are eligible for compensation, the Portsmouth plant ranks 15th in terms of the number of claims submitted. Total compensation paid reaches more than $865 million. Despite what might seem like a large dollar amount in payouts, Colley and her group argue the government stacks the deck against workers. Colley flat out claims the government tries to delay compensation until a former worker dies, since survivor payments are cheaper than medical bills.
Tiffanee Moyer is a nurse for Critical Nurse Staffing, Inc., which works directly with local former energy workers. She said the government does indeed make workers jump through a lot of hoops to earn compensation.
“It takes a very long time for people to win approvals,” said Sydney Ehmke, outreach coordinator for the Atomic Resource Coalition (ARC), a national nonprofit which works to help former energy workers.
In the end, Colley and the others may never be satisfied. For every claim one side makes, the other side has a counterclaim. Colley swears there is a pipe pumping contaminated water from the Portsmouth plant directly into the Scioto River, something officials overseeing the dismantling of the plant flatly denied. (Colley even provided a photo of an open pipe with water flowing out of it, though there is no way to tell where that pipe sits from the photo alone.) Colley and the others also worry rank-and-file workers helping to take down the plant and build the waste disposal site are exposed to hazards of which they are not being told. A request for a response from current plant management was not recieved in time for this story. It is unclear if current workers would be eligible for compensation should problems arise.
As for the opposition to the storage facility, which would house debris from the plant and other sources on the grounds of the plant, a DOE spokesperson recently said her department would need to see a “fatal flaw” in the plans for the storage facility to reopen the record of decision approving construction of the storage site. In an email sent to The Daily Times, Piketon Mayor Billy Spencer said the fatal flaw is that the DOE lied to the public about the porous nature of the bed rock beneath the site of the proposed storage facility. Spencer did not respond to several requests for further comment. Piketon, Portsmouth and several other surrounding communities all have passed resolutions opposing construction of the storage site.
“Our federal government continues to ignore the people of southern Ohio, who are very clearly requesting the record of decision be reopened. We didn’t know they lied to us until after they made this decision,” Spencer said in his email.
Reach Tom Corrigan at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931