JOLIET – Larry Kelman of Naperville knew for the 45 years he worked at the University of Chicago and later Argonne National Laboratory that the dust swirling around him and other employees probably was not a good thing.
But he didn’t know it would cost him the use of his lungs.
Barbara Bush of Joliet used to tell her husband, Earl, to shake out the gray granules that gathered in his pants cuffs while working with uranium as a laboratory technician at Blockson Chemical’s Building 55 during the Cold War.
She now wonders if laundering the rest of that dust from his work clothes contributed to the brain and bladder cancers she developed a few years ago.
Earl’s doctors already have told him his Parkinson’s disease can be traced back to his work at Blockson some 45 years ago.
Those were just a few of the stories told by some of the more than 200 people who attended a program on a special federal compensation package Wednesday at The Herald News.
The program, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Morris, focused on compensation for the people who worked with, or came in contact with, uranium and beryllium, during Cold War nuclear testing and processing.
Congress last year approved the compensation package, which would provide $150,000 to each affected worker or their surviving family members, as well as free medical services for the workers’ government work-related illness.
Former President Bill Clinton expedited the program with an executive order in December, which means the program must be up and running by July 31. That’s not a lot of time, said Kate
Kimpan, senior policy adviser for the Department of Energy’s Worker Advocacy Department. And there is much to do.
Clinton’s executive order gives the primary responsibility of the program to the U.S.
Department of Labor, Kimpan said. But the new secretary is asking for that duty to be reassigned, she added, and no one is sure how that will affect the July 31 deadline.
What they do know, Kimpan told the group, is that the compensation will cover some of the former employees of the former Blockson/Olin company near Joliet; the William E. Pratt Co., formerly at Cass and Henderson in Joliet; and some 2,300 former workers at the University of
Chicago and later Argonne.
World War II work
Some workers at Blockson/Olin and Pratt could have been exposed to uranium. The Pratt company ground uranium rods for nuclear fuel for the government from 1943 to 1946. The 2,300 former workers at the University of Chicago/Argonne could have been exposed to beryllium dust while producing casings for atomic weapons in the 1940s.
Beryllium is safe when the strong, lightweight non-radioactive material is part of a golf club or otherwise whole, Kimpan said. But when it’s ground to produce the desired thickness, dangerous dust can scatter.
Site B was the area where Kelman worked at Argonne, the area where there was beryllium dust all over. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic took out part of a lung years ago, he said, and his own doctors misdiagnosed his malady at first, saying it was not work-related. Eight years of legal battles followed.
Now, Kelman receives workers compensation from the state for his beryllium-related lung problems. Kimpan said he also would be in line to receive the $150,000 in the compensation package, as well as the medical benefits under that plan, or keep his current medical plan.
Kelman said he also was concerned about the people who didn’t work in Site B every day, but those like postal carriers who were exposed to the dust regularly as they made deliveries there.
Kimpan said the compensation package also covers contractors who may have come in contact with the dangerous materials under the government program, whether they were uranium or beryllium.
While working at Blockson’s Building 55 for years, Earl Bush came in contact with uranium every day. The government noted the company made cleaners and fertilizers out of phosphorus. Another byproduct of phosphorus is uranium, and from 1952 to 1962, Blockson, later bought by the Olin Corp., extracted some 2 million pounds of uranium for government nuclear weapons testing.
The focus was on speed, not safety, energy experts say now. So while Bush wore a thin white mask to help keep from breathing the dust, he wore no gloves or any other protective gear. And though workers had to have strict government clearance to enter Building 55, Bush may have brought some of his work home.
“I remember he used to come home with this stuff in his pants cuffs,” said his daughter, Cheryl Leone of Joliet. “My mother used to say, ‘Shake off your pants before you come in.'”
Though a doctor has said Bush’s Parkinson’s disease can be traced to the uranium exposure, so far that malady isn’t on the list of ailments the government usually associates with radiation exposure.
While Bush may or may not be covered under the compensation package, Kimpan said his wife is out of luck. The package covers only the affected workers, not family members or people who lived near the plants. That would be up to Congress to add on someday, she added.
But for now, Kimpan suggested all people who believe they qualify call the DOE worker advocacy hot line at (877) 447-9756. It’s too early to file a claim, since the forms and regulations aren’t even ready yet, she said. But calling the number and leaving information will get workers or their families into a national database so they can be contacted when compensation processing is ready.
Kimpan also recommended the callers be patient. In the few months since the compensation package was announced, more than 19,000 people nationwide already have called the hot line to get in the database.
A study commissioned by Clinton several years ago found that there were some 10,000 workers nationwide at more than 200 companies who could have been exposed to uranium, beryllium or silica for private government contracts during the Cold War.
The issue came to light last fall when USA Today did a three-part series after nearly a year of investigation. Since that time, The Herald News has followed the issue from the revelation of the exposed workers to the passage and processing of the workers compensation package. Those stories, as well as pictures and other information can be found on The Herald News Web site: [WEB SITE] heraldnews/focus/.
Kimpan, along with Weller and U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Hinsdale, whose 13th District includes Argonne, told the people at The Herald News that they or their loved ones won the Cold War for the United States.
By doing so, Weller and Biggert said, the health of the workers was put in jeopardy.
“I know that no level of benefits can compensate for what you have sacrificed in the service of our country,” Biggert said. “But we must try. … We owe you.”