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Published: Thursday, 12/27/2012

DEADLY ALLIANCE: WEAPONS OVER WORKERS

Casualties without bullets

Many workers at government sites feel betrayed

BY SAM ROE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

GOLDEN, Colo. -- Bill Fletcher eases his pickup off the highway and points across the barbed wire fence and windswept mesa to what appears to be a small town in the distance.

"Unless you knew it was here, you'd drive right by and never know it," he says.

The collection of buildings is the old Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. Here, Mr. Fletcher and thousands of others built bombs during the Cold War, making it one of the U.S. government's most secret facilities.

And here, Mr. Fletcher and dozens of others contracted beryllium disease -- a disease that has left Mr. Fletchertethered to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day.

"We didn't carry M-16s on the front lines, but we helped keep the country free," the 46-year-old says, pulling back on the highway, his portable oxygen tank hissing in the backseat.

"Now the way we're treated is like the Vietnam vets coming home and being spit on. They've just turned their backs on us."

More than 100 current and former workers at U.S. government sites such as Rocky Flats have been diagnosed with beryllium disease in recent years -- and dozens more are expected.

Many are machinists who, under the strictest security, sawed, welded, and cut the dangerous metal for use in America's nuclear arsenal.

Now, some say that the country they loyally served for years has betrayed them.

DEADLY ALLIANCE: How government and industry chose weapons over workers

"I thought, 'This was the government. They weren't going to put our lives in danger,' " says Glenn Bell, who contracted the disease at a weapons plant in Tennessee.

Some victims have sued the government for negligence. Others want a federal compensation fund. Others just want assurances more workers won't get sick.

The U.S. Energy Department, which historically has been responsible for nuclear weapons production, says it is taking action: It plans to spend $130 million over the next 10 years for improved air sampling, training, and medical monitoring.

"There's clearly something amiss that needs to be corrected," says Dr. Paul Seligman, the Energy Department's health studies director.

In all, 115 current and former workers at Energy Department sites have been diagnosed with the disease. Another 236 have abnormal blood tests -- a sign they may very well develop the illness.

Virtually all of these cases have occurred at the Rocky Flats plant, which is being torn down, and the famed Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Energy Department officials acknowledge that workers at these sites clearly were told conditions were safe.

And for years, they appeared to be: Beryllium air counts were typically below the safety limit, and no one was getting sick.

But in reality, air monitoring was so poor that no one knew how much dust individual workers were being exposed to, government records show.

So when workers started coming down with the disease in the mid-1980s, officials were hard-pressed to explain what had gone wrong.

"This is an especially unfortunate situation we have," says Paul Wambach, an Energy Department industrial hygienist. "These people were told repeatedly that these were safe work places, there were controls put in place, there was monitoring going on.

"So being told you have a chronic, progressive disease that you are going to have to deal with the rest of your life is not good news.

"There's no good spin to put on it," he says. "I'd be upset, too."

The number of cases is expected to grow: Workers continue to be checked for the disease, and exposure to beryllium dust remains possible at 10 Energy Department plants and laboratories. These sites are owned by the government but managed by private contractors, and so the workers are not federal employees.

At Rocky Flats, victims meet once a month to talk about their illness. On one such day, six file into a local restaurant.

"Smoking or nonsmoking?" the waitress asks.

"Nonsmoking," Mr. Fletcher says.

"Oh," she says, noticing three men toting oxygen tanks. "Of course."

They file to the back, drawing stares as they go.

"I'm aware of it," Mr. Fletcher says. "I'm aware of it every day. I've had people say, 'Cigarette smoking caught up with you, huh?' And I've never smoked a day in my life."

They sit around a long table and, in rapid succession, say the government deceived them.

"They used us as guinea pigs," one says.

"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy, what they did to me," another says.

"This was all needless," Mr. Fletcher says, with the intensity of a high school football coach. "They could have achieved their goals, defended this country, without sacrificing people's health."

At the end of the table is Willie Hobbs, a 64-year-old who has been on oxygen for six years. Medicine has helped his breathing, but he complains of the side effects: cataracts, bone loss, and mood swings.

Ron Roerish, a 57-year-old who still works at Rocky Flats, mentions how the disease has robbed many of the victims of their masculinity. For him, sex has become difficult, if not impossible. And he used to hunt elk in the Rockies and fish in the high lakes. Now he can barely tag along as the camp cook.

"They say you can live a full life, but what's that? I don't think I'm living a normal life."

There are similar sentiments in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where beryllium is handled at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant.

For years, the city of Oak Ridge was so secret it didn't even appear on maps. The government built the entire town -- homes, schools, stores included -- during World War II with one goal in mind: create a nuclear bomb before the Germans did. Three massive, mysterious plants were constructed at Oak Ridge: X-10, K-25, and Y-12.

Today, the Y-12 plant stretches for two miles in Bear Creek Valley. It is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Systems and consists of dozens of drab, rectangular buildings. Plumes of steam can be seen here and there, and security checkpoints are at every gate.

Since 1991, records show, 28 current and former Y-12 workers have developed beryllium disease.

Among them: Glenn Bell, a 51-year-old with a reddish face and large glasses.

He started there in 1968, when an arm injury kept him out of the Vietnam War. "This was my way of serving my country without going into the service," he says. "What we were doing was going to save the world -- be a deterrent to communism."

But now he has beryllium disease, is divorced, and lives alone in a cluttered house with three pet ferrets.

He has no visible symptoms, but he says he has been hospitalized several times for breathing problems. Steroids help, he says, but they make him moody and depressed.

"There are some days I want to sling the ferrets out the back door."

One outlet is his research. He says he spends two hours a day tracking down government documents about beryllium, e-mailing other victims, and writing letters to local newspapers. Forty binders of records now line his living room shelves, and two filing cabinets are crammed with more.

"It's kind of like running a counter-intelligence agency," he says.

Perhaps nothing says more about Mr. Bell than what's in his driveway.

There, under a metal carport, is his 1969 Chevy van. An air-brush artist, Mr. Bell painted it a couple of summers ago, calling it "Toxic Burn."

One side depicts Oak Ridge of the future, a city floating amid the clouds. The other side depicts the bomb plant. Thick, black smoke rises from the plant and swirls around a nude woman who tries to capture it in a caldron, only to have it spill out and envelop a man behind her, his arms outstretched in agony.

"It's pretty much a statement," Mr. Bell says.

So is the personalized license plate: "WHEEZIN."



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