Relatives of workers who died of exposure to radiation or toxic materials at a Cold War-era uranium enrichment plant in Ohio are fighting a ruling by state officials that keeps them from receiving workers’ compensation death benefits.
They say they should not be penalized for missing a deadline for filing claims because the government withheld information for years and workers did not know they were working in a life-threatening environment.
“There isn’t any amount of money on this earth that could replace what we lost,” said Anna Fleshman, 77, of Chillicothe. “But I do believe they owe us. If they could see what they go through with that cancer … they should have told the boys.”
Fleshman’s husband, Loren Fleshman, worked at the plant in Piketon for more 30 years and died in 1991 with colon cancer.
She was surprised that the application process for $150,000 in federal benefits required only a death certificate and a limited amount of paperwork, nearly 10 years after her husband died.
But the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation turned down her claim because it was not filed within a two-year statute of limitations, and the Industrial Commission of Ohio rejected her appeal.
“I thought it wasn’t fair, but I didn’t figure there was anything could be done about it,” Fleshman said. “I was used to my husband doing the fighting for me.”
Columbus lawyer Philip Fulton, who specializes in workers’ compensation claims, represents 38 plaintiffs whose relatives worked at the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant about 80 miles east of Cincinnati. He’s fighting their cases in Pike County Common Pleas Court.
He argued to the Industrial Commission that an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton in December 2000 granted emergency status to the claims to allow payment of benefits by the federal government.
“The commission finds that the executive order does not amount to the declaration of an emergency or a disaster described in the statute,” the Ohio board said in a March ruling consolidating the state claims. “The Industrial Commission finds that it is without authority to order equitable relief.”
Some workers, like Loren Fleshman, spent their whole careers at the Piketon plant. He worked as a firefighter.
“He was a kid just out of the Navy when he went to work there in 1954,” Anna Fleshman said. He retired in 1988 because of health problems, was diagnosed with colon cancer in March 1991 and died six months later, after cancer had spread throughout his body, she said.
In 2001, the government acknowledged that workers had been exposed to toxic substances – radiation, heavy metals, asbestos and harsh solvents and acids – while working at various sites as employees of Energy Department contractors.
Another Piketon plaintiff, Eva Prall, 75, of Waverly, said she, too, was left in the dark when her husband, Harold, died of lymphoma in 1982 after working at the plant for 27 years.
“He said that he sometimes worked on equipment that was ‘hot’ but he was told not to talk about it,” she said. “My family all told me, ‘You should do something about this.’ I just did not want to get involved in fighting the government.”
Widows like Fleshman and Prall say they often didn’t know what caused their husbands’ deaths until years later.
That’s why Congress passed a law in 2000 directing the Energy Department to help workers file claims for lost wages and medical benefits, reversing a decades-old practice in which the government helped contractors fight the claims.
“Congress recognized that a large number of nuclear weapons workers who supplied the Cold War effort were put at risk without their knowledge or consent,” alleges a lawsuit filed by Fulton last week in Ohio. “Congress also recognized that many top secret records were now documenting unmonitored exposures.”
The government act has the unwieldy name of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, or EEOICP.
A U.S. Department of Labor Web site shows that as of June 4, 3,763 Piketon workers or their survivors had submitted 9,453 claims and had received federal compensation totaling $365.9 million, including $40.9 million in medical bills.
On the Net: DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security: www.hss.energy.gov/healthsafety/fwsp/advocacy
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