Ailing ex-Area 51 worker gets help fighting feds

A Florida woman who has battled federal agencies over their denials of compensation claims for sick Cold War workers who were exposed to toxic substances has gone to bat for a former Area 51 worker from Las Vegas.

Donna Hand of Tampa said the Labor Department should reopen Fred Dunham’s claim and those of about 50 other workers at Area 51, the once-secret U.S. Air Force test installation 90 miles north of Las Vegas.

Dunham worked as a security guard at Area 51 in the 1980s. The installation where the Air Force secretly tested high-tech military aircraft generated a mystique among UFO enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists. It also played big parts in several popular science fiction movies, including “Independence Day,” which came out in 1996, and “Paul” in 2011.

Hand, a workers advocate and authorized representative for Dunham, 64, said the Labor Department wrongly relied on a Department of Energy contractor employee’s opinion “not based on any material facts” that Dunham’s employer, EG&G Special Projects, was a Defense Department subcontractor not covered by the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act.

A spokesman for DOE contractor National Security Technologies said Friday the employee that Hand mentioned had nothing to do with the Labor Department’s decisions to deny claims.

Hand contends that recently declassified CIA documents and a memorandum of understanding between the departments of Energy and Defense about land use and operation of Area 51 and Area 13 — where dioxin-laced coatings for stealth aircraft were burned in open pits adjacent to the Nevada Test Site — confirm that EG&G Special Projects is on the list of contractors approved for the compensation program.

In an Oct. 15 letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Hand said that she received a copy of Dunham’s file on Oct. 8, and in the file “was documentation that EG&G Special (Projects) was a DOE contractor confirmed” by a DOE Nevada Operations Office official and a claims examiner in 2007.

“In the interest of justice, reopen all EG&G Special (Projects) employees claims” and issue decisions within 60 days, Hand wrote to Perez and other federal officials who oversee the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation program.

They “did not review the file, correct the employment, and (have) denied Mr. Dunham’s claim without substantial evidence,” her letter to Perez said.

A Labor Department spokesman in San Francisco had no comment on the letter Friday. He referred questions about it from the Las Vegas Review-Journal to department officials in Washington, D.C.

Hand said if the Labor Department doesn’t reopen all EG&G Special Projects claims for recommended decisions in 60 days, they will be included in a Cold War worker compensation case about her late father that is before the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit. Her father, Leon Joel Hand, died of a form of leukemia. He worked for a company that extracted uranium from phosphate for the nuclear weapons complex from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Dunham said when he worked at Area 51, excess stealth coating material from the F-117A Nighthawk program was routinely burned in open pits in violation of environmental laws.

He now suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He blames his health problems on not only inhaling toxic fumes from the burn pits but also on a nuclear weapons test, Mighty Oak, at the former Nevada Test Site, which is now called the Nevada National Security Site. Area 51 is adjacent to the northeast corner of the security site.

Dunham said he was outside when the Mighty Oak test “blew the doors off a tunnel” seven miles from where he was standing.

While Department of Energy workers exposed to radioactive or toxic materials at the test site have been awarded single payments of $150,000 or more each for illnesses linked to their jobs, Area 51 workers have been denied compensation.

Dunham and his co-workers were issued Department of Energy access badges for the test site, yet their claims under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation program have been routinely denied.

“We were all on the same team,” he said Friday. “It was a joint operation between DOD and DOE. I hope the government will wake up and do the correct thing based on what the truth is.”

Contact Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2

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