PIKETON, Ohio — A patch of land in the hills of rural Pike County, Ohio, hardly looks as if it played a key role in the Cold War. But as politicians dueled on the world stage, workers at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant south of Piketon toiled away producing weapons-grade uranium for the United States’ military.
The plant went online in 1954, lasted through the Cold War and is now in the process of winding down. Presciently, a group of Amish settlers who once plowed the land pulled up stakes when construction on the plant began in 1952. They were worried about the environmental impact, and the traditional pacifists were uncomfortable with the militaristic aspects of the complex.
Fast-forward to today, with the plant being decommissioned and an environmental cleanup underway, and former workers say the Amish were right to be afraid. Ex-employees at the plant say that they were sickened by radiation exposure and that the government is turning a deaf ear to them, even though there is a process set up specifically to handle such matters.
“What has happened is the bureaucracy has become so entwined and is so busy taking care of itself that the claimants are pushed down,” said former worker Lisa Parker.
For her, the health issues of former Piketon workers are a family affair. Her husband, Calvin Parker, has an aggressive form of prostate cancer, and she has beryllium disease. Her mother, who also once worked at the plant, died of cancer. Lisa Parker filed a health claim in 2003, and it was denied, and it was again denied when she applied in 2009. In 2015 it was finally approved retroactively to 2003, but she has yet to recoup costs that she had to pay under her insurance plan’s 80/20 plan. “Twenty percent is still a lot,” she said.
“[The Department of Energy] won’t approve it or look at it to study it. Eight of 14 employees in Calvin’s department had an aggressive form of prostate cancer before they were 60. If you are 78 years old and you get prostate cancer, you’ll die with it but not from it, but if you are 60 and you get it, it will kill you, and they won’t even study it,” Lisa Parker said.
And prostate cancer can vary.
“This is not the type of cancer that someone working at your local Dairy Queen would get,” said David Manuta, the chief scientist at the plant from 1990 to 2000, one year before it ceased operations, describing it as a more malignant form than is common.
The Department of Energy, which is handling claims, set up a program known as dose reconstruction, but the program overlooks some key data, he said.
“Uranium-238 is the kind that comes out of the ground,” he said. To make it weapons grade, it has to be refined to uranium-235, which is what the Department of Energy tests look for. But the tests overlook uranium-234 — another isotope. “That is what most of the workers were exposed to … uranium-234.”
Manuta, who serves as an expert witness for individuals suing the government, is preparing to sue the government himself over the use of the flawed dose reconstruction simulation.
For Paul Brogdon, the battle for his health goes far beyond simulations; it’s an everyday reality. He was a police officer in Portsmouth, Ohio. But he left that job to work at Piketon in the same role as Calvin Parker: transporting uranium. Brogdon worked at Piketon for 22 years before taking an early retirement in 1998 to care for his ailing wife. Five years later, when he was 59, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The same aggressive kind that Parker developed.
“You always hear that older men get prostate cancer, but we are usually talking late 70s or 80s … and even then it usually grows slowly, and often they’ll just keep an eye on it. But In my case it grew rapidly. I had the cancer removed but not before cancer cells went into my bloodstream, and I’m fighting it to this day,” Brogdon said.
Today he says the treatment saps his strength, but “my choice is take this medicine and feel bad or not take the medicine and the cancer will grow rapidly and I would be gone within a year. I don’t like that choice, so I take the medicine,” he said.
His insurance company pays the medical bills, but he still has to pay the mounting co-pays and deductibles, which he says the Department of Energy should be taking care of.
Brodgon’s claim for prostate cancer has been denied. He has had five dose reconstructions (the ones Manuta says are flawed) and they have failed to qualify him for workers’ compensation. The dose reconstructions are administered by the National Institute of Safety and Health via the Department of Energy.
A spokesman for the Department of Energy did not respond to requests for comment.
Overall, the response from the government has been mixed through the years. The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program was created in 2001 through an act of Congress. The government originally projected that the program would compensate over 3,000 people at an annual cost of $120 million. Instead, about $12 billion has been paid to more than 50,000 workers.
“The government created the program, deliberately underestimating how many people would need help,” Manuta said, adding that the problems in Piketon can be found in clusters of former armament works throughout the country.
A decadelong study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health failed to find a causal link between exposure in Piketon and health problems — a conclusion that many former workers scoff at.
The report reads, “In summary, this was an exhaustive effort to understand the exposures and their potential effects on this population of nuclear workers. At this point in time, there do not seem to be deviations in mortality of sufficient magnitude to detect epidemiologically. It remains to be determined whether this is because there has been no adverse mortality resulting from these exposures or if it is a matter of the relatively young age of this cohort.”
Brodgon said he will continue the fight, believing that there should be congressional hearings into the Department of Energy’s conduct, including during the claims period. Despite it all, he doesn’t necessarily have any regrets.
“The jobs are few and far between in these river towns. When I went out there, I didn’t know beans from apple butter, as far as nuclear business. I made good money and supported my family. I didn’t realize what I was up against at the time,” he said.