If exposure to toxic waste was happening on a semi-regular basis at a federally-ran nuclear disposal site in the U.S., don’t you think it would be newsworthy enough for national coverage? Workers at the Hanford Site in Washington State no doubt wish it were. At that site and others across the country, thousands of workers have filed claims for illnesses and injuries, and the federal government is doling out billions in compensation.
The Hanford site is a repository for spent nuclear power plant fuel rods; it’s where nuclear waste goes to die. But the maintenance of this and other facilities like it rests with workers employed by the Department of Energy and contractors, organizations that should know a thing or two about nuclear safety and workers’ rights.
One summer day in 2007, truck driver Lonnie Poteet came to the Hanford Site with a delivery. Officials at the site had contacted him earlier in the day and advised him to make his drop as late in the day as possible, though they didn’t say why.
Poteet pulled up around 10 a.m. and immediately began experiencing odd symptoms.
“I was already burning from my glove line to my t-shirt line and the side of my face and I was already starting to lose a little bit of vision in my right eye,” said Poteet according to a local NBC affiliate.
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What officials hadn’t told Poteet when he spoke with them earlier was that a spill had occurred at 2 am, and they were still working on containment and clean-up.
Now, Poteet has vision loss in his right eye, is sensitive to light, and deals with constant head pain due to nerve damage. He is one of thousands who has been rewarded compensation for injuries caused at the site.
In 2001, the feds set up the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, or EEOICPA, to compensate workers who become ill after working with radiation and toxic substances. Since then, the EEOICPA has awarded more than $1 billion to workers from the Hanford site alone.
Nationwide, the EEOICPA has awarded about $10 billion to energy workers nationwide.
But despite this hefty price tag, not everyone who is harmed at these facilities is paid. While 15,000 have filed claims, less than half have been compensated.
Even the workers who are awarded compensation under the EEOICPA may not receive money from the Department of Energy or the Department of Labor. The DOE, who oversees all of the nuclear sites, repeatedly denies claims of long-term health effects from workers, sending them to the line of EEOICPA applicants rather than admitting their oversight and safety may be lacking.
One worker said, “Oh DOE, DOE denies everything. DOE has always denied everything. And that’s not going to change.”