Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid levied his harshest criticism yet of a government program to compensate former Nevada Test Site workers who suffer from cancer, telling a presidential advisory board Wednesday that the process is “short-sighted and unfair” and isn’t working as Congress intended.
The crux of the problem, he said, is that compensation of $150,000 per worker or survivor plus medical costs depends on reconstruction of radiation exposures the workers endured from activities related to nuclear weapons testing.
The dose reconstruction work is performed by contractors for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which “is standing by flawed and inadequate science,” Reid, D-Nev., told the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health during a meeting at the Suncoast.
Reid asserted that an evaluation by NIOSH that recommends the board not grant special status to workers who participated in underground nuclear tests from 1963 to 1992 lacks foundation.
Granting special exposure status would automatically give hundreds of qualified claimants compensation without them having to rely on costly dose reconstructions. The status would apply to those who worked at the test site for at least 250 days and were exposed to toxic chemicals that have been linked to certain cancers.
Reid accused NIOSH of foot dragging since the program’s inception in 2000 and basing its evaluation on incomplete information, specifically the so-called “site profile” document. The document is supposed to include pertinent, historical information about all tests and activities involving radioactive materials or releases at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
“Eight years later, I’m troubled and disappointed,” he said. “The dose reconstruction process isn’t working for Nevada Test Site workers. That’s what NIOSH is using, but they’re being, in my opinion, short-sighted and unfair.”
Flanked by some of the claimants who petitioned for special status, Reid told the board that one of them, Peter White, a welder, opted not to wear his radiation detection badge because sparks had damaged the first one he was issued. White, he said, “was directed not to damage his badge again unless he wanted to find a job somewhere else.”
Reid said another petitioner, Oscar Foger, a Las Vegas miner who developed kidney cancer, would put his badge along with those from other miners in a coffee can that supervisors would put at the entrance to tunnels where they worked. The badges then wouldn’t show the real amount of radiation to which they were exposed.
“Reality and protocol are two different things, and you, as board members, need to understand that,” Reid said. “And the national institute relies upon the site profile to perform dose reconstructions, and, shockingly, they haven’t even completed that.”
During a break in the meeting, Larry Elliott, director of the NIOSH Office of Compensation Analysis and Support, said, “We have no reaction” to Reid’s comments.
“Our reaction is in our evaluation report,” Elliott said.
Outside the meeting, Reid said if the board doesn’t grant special status to the former test site workers, he would consider a “legislative fix” and have the Government Accountability Office assess how NIOSH has performed its role in the Labor Department’s Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.
“The whole program has been jimmied,” Reid said.
In November, Peter Turcic, director of the Labor Department program, acknowledged that more than 700 cases of test site workers would be reopened and returned to NIOSH after an audit found flaws in documents used to assess them.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Paul Ziemer, the board’s chairman, said he hopes the board can make a decision on the special exposure petition by its next meeting in April.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt would then would take the board’s recommendation and the one from NIOSH and in turn make his own recommendation to Congress for final action.
If granted, the special status could affect more than 1,300 claims filed by former workers and survivors.
Patricia Cook, claimant No. 1,359 whose mother died of cancer, said her case was botched by NIOSH and the Labor Department causing years of delay that resulted in her having to start over.
She shared e-mails written by employees in those agencies that show her mother’s primary cancer, multiple myeloma, had been deleted from the files and, in turn, affected the dose reconstruction work.
“This looks to me like an intentional attempt to change the facts in my mother’s records. I won’t accept that either one of these DRs (dose reconstructions) is accurate. I think it’s more than just sloppy work. It’s deliberate tampering,” she said.