PASCO, Wash. -- When workers at the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington get seriously sick, there's a program set up 15 years ago they can turn to for help with long-term medical and disability benefits.
Called the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP), it was established by Congress in the year 2000 to aid the men and women who risked their lives during and after the Cold War at places like Hanford -- where the raw fuel was made for the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal, and where radiation and toxins continue to pose a significant safety threat.
The problem with the program, however, is that workers who apply for help say they are met with delays and denials. A government audit released in 2010 found that processing claims can take up to seven years -- a frustrating delay for people who struggle to pay for expensive medical treatments.
Eight people -- 5 former workers, 1 current and 2 family members who’ve lost loved ones -- talked with KING 5 about their struggles to obtain benefits they believe they are entitled to.
Some, like Roger Ibarra and Dick Simonis, are suffering from COPD -- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease often associated with emphysema, asthma and chronic bronchitis.
Ron Stevens, a 20-year veteran of the Hanford Site, suffers from COPD, as well as kidney failure and cancer.
Scott Passage, age 54, has COPD that is so advanced that he's left with just 28 percent of his lung capacity. He said he's supposed to be on oxygen 24-hours a day. Passage is currently in remission from stage four throat cancer.
Dale Geer worked in the Hanford tank farms for 26 years -- where he said the Safety teams told him he was protected from metals like mercury and lead. Now he's sick with COPD and toxic encephalopathy – damage to the brain caused by exposure to toxic chemicals and metals.
Evelyn Hall's husband, Bill, died in 2009 of leukemia. He was a maintenance manager who worked in the field often.
At 49, Terry Wattenburger is constantly in and out of the hospital.....with COPD, two types of cancer and a muscle disease. As recently as two years ago he appeared healthy, but since then cancer required his doctors to remove his stomach, and Wattenburger lost 70 pounds, leaving him with a skeletal physique.
What each of these people has in common is that they have applied to the U.S. Department of Labor’s EEOICP (program) but have yet to receive benefits.
The federal government accepts that the workers in the group that spoke with KING 5 were exposed to toxins like arsenic, ammonia, asbestos and cadmium. But doctors employed by contractors hired by the Department of Labor to evaluate claims have concluded that in their cases, working at Hanford was not a "significant factor in causing, contributing to", or even "aggravating" their illnesses.
"I’ve fought and I’ve fought and I’ve fought them and it’s a losing battle," said Stevens.
The Department of Labor is quick to tout how much assistance has been paid out under the program -- $10 billion as of December 2013. That money covers payments to thousands of workers who got sick after working at scores of facilities across the country, not just Hanford.
But the 2010 audit by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the United States Congress, highlighted numerous problems in the program that explain why Hanford workers are so frustrated. Investigators found that there's no oversight of the consultant physicians who recommended the denials. What's more, the doctors -- hired by Department of Labor-paid contractors to review claimants' medical files -- never actually see the patients.
The Department of Labor declined to make a representative available to be interviewed on camera, but sent a statement that said consulting doctors are used not to hurt, but "actually to help claimants who may not initially be able to meet their burden of proof."
The group that spoke with KING 5 doesn't see it that way.
"I just think that we’re all getting a raw deal. I don’t know why but ... they [hire] somebody that really don’t know me, don’t know any of us, but is going to stamp a reject on your form," said Scott Passage.
The congressional investigation also found processing claims can take between a few months to more than seven years. That's time that many sick workers don't have.
"I could die in six months, my lungs are going that fast, and I worry about my wife. That’s all," Terry Wattenburger said.
"They’re running and hiding and denying and denying and denying, and they don’t care and all this money’s coming out of my pocket. And that’s what’s irritating me bad," said Stevens.
The workers and survivors of lost loved ones said the system is so cumbersome, so lacking in compassion that they believe the government is simply waiting them out -- to save money. Under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, the government at most pays out a lump sum of $250,000 to sick workers or to their family members if they have already passed away. But living workers are also entitled to payment for all of their medical expenses, which can add up to thousands and even millions of dollars more.
“When you’re dead, they have no one to fight,” said Stevens.
"It’s very difficult in my opinion for the worker to pass that denial threshold," said Dr. Brian Campbell, a neuropsychologist in Spokane who has evaluated dozens of Hanford workers. "They (the government) can outwait, outlast, and outspend any of the workers that I’ve seen."
Of Dr. Campbell's patients, the case of Dale Geer is perhaps the best example of that. Remember he has lung disease and brain damage. It took Geer five years to get the Department of Labor to help with his COPD. Now an in-home nurse visits once a week to manage that lung disease and the boxes of drugs and nebulizer treatments that Geer must use to stay alive. The Dept of Labor pays for the nursing care and treatments related to his COPD.
"I'm sick every day. I hurt from the time I get up until the time I go to bed," Geer said.
But as yet, the department has continually denied compensation for Geer’s brain damage.
More than one physician who examined Geer concluded that his illnesses were most likely caused by exposure to toxins at Hanford. One went so far as to write that there "is no other plausible explanation" for the heavy metals found in his system. And that those metals are proven to cause toxic encephalopathy.
“Chronic cumulative lead exposure is well known to cause decline in neurocognitive function as well as psychiatric symptoms including anxiety,” wrote Dr. Mark Farley.
After Geer received that evaluation, the Department of Labor program denied his claim.
"What more does a person need to do than clearly state that the worker’s exposure at Hanford led to the problems described?" Dr. Campbell said.
The group told KING 5 that they are not looking to get rich. They said they want their medical needs taken care of. The two surviving family members said they just wanted to pay off the bills left behind by their loved ones.
"They promised us if we did get sick they’d take care of us, and now they kind of just, you don’t count now -- out of the mix, out of the union. It ain’t right, it ain’t right," Passage said.
Tuesday UPDATE: One Hanford worker was evaluated at the on site medical facility Tuesday morning after he and another man smelled odors consistent with a chemical vapor release from an underground tank in the AP tank farm. And on Monday two Hanford workers were evaluated for symptoms associated with exposure to chemical vapors in the SY tank farm. The area was evacuated after the workers reported suspicious fumes. This brings the total number of workers to 37 since March 19 who have either been either evaluated or treated by medical professionals for exposure to sudden releases of unknown toxic chemical vapors. The vapors are released from underground nuclear holding tanks at the site. The workers worry about the long term health effects from the exposures.
Workers who spoke with KING 5 Monday were frustrated that people continue to get sick, yet Dept. of Energy officials, Hanford contractor executives and political leaders don’t appear to be taking the situation seriously.
“How many more people does it take before they do something,?”said one worker. “How many more times do they have to study it, review it, form another committee and talk about it? They know where the problems are. The politicians in DC said they’ll look into it and check it out. Their job is to pressure the Dept. of Energy to actually change things to protect workers. When’s that going to happen?”
Watch KING 5's full series: The Human Toll of Hanford's Dirty Secrets