Uranium workers win radiation exposure suit
Victory in Colorado comes after years of fighting gov't lies
BY HEIDI MELLOR
AND MARION RUSSELL
GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado--Thirty-two former workers at the Cotter Corporation uranium processing mill in Canon City, Colorado, and residents who lived near the plant were awarded $16.3 million by a federal jury in U.S. district court June 28 for illnesses due to radiation exposure. The amount does not include interest or future medical costs 30 of the plaintiffs won as part of their lawsuit. Three of the plaintiffs have died in the decade since the suit was filed in 1991.
2,000 in Rifle, Colorado, protest fatal shooting of four Mexican workers|
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The victory comes amidst a number of protests and lawsuits by working people against the federal government and corporations over exposure to radioactive materials. Former uranium miners and others in the Western States RECA Reform Coalition organized a meeting here in March to demand the federal government pass emergency legislation to cover payments to miners and people affected by testing of nuclear bombs in the United States. RECA is the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990. Another group pressing this fight is the Office of Navajo Uranium Workers in Shiprock, New Mexico.
For decades, the U.S. government has been complicit with the employers in covering up the danger of uranium radiation for workers in the industry and surrounding communities. It is only through the efforts of working people themselves that the facts have been forced out in the open.
Workers at the Cotter Corporation mill processed uranium starting in 1958, grinding it and forming it into "yellowcake," which was used in nuclear power plants. The dusty uranium powder drifted across ranches and the surrounding communities. Horse rancher Joe Dodge, the original plaintiff in the suit, stood up and fought the company in face of the death of his wife from radiation-induced leukemia and the loss of his farm as the radioactive dust drifted into the soil and water and across clotheslines, his house, and other buildings. Other plaintiffs were families whose children were born with birth defects linked to radioactive dust.
In 1984 the federal government declared the mill environmentally unsafe and despite court appeals by the company made it a Superfund site. This made it eligible for federal cleanup funds as one of the nation's most polluted sites. The mill was closed in 1987. The Environmental Protection Agen-cy reported, "Liquid waste containing both radionuclides and heavy metals from the mill was discharged for years into unlined tailings ponds" resulting in "a plume of contaminants, including molybdenum, uranium, and selenium, extending from the mill along Sand Creek and affecting private wells serving about 200 people in Lincoln Park."
At the end of the trial in the lawsuit, Cotter Corporation's lawyer John Watson announced the plaintiffs "will never see this money." This is the fourth trial involving pollution claims against Cotter Mill. A 1998 trial, which gave 13 plaintiffs roughly $5 million, was overturned on appeal and was retried as part of this case.
"I'm elated," said Joe Dodge after the victory. "Finally the Cotter Corporation is being held accountable." His daughter Rhonda Butson said, "This is justice for the death of our mother. Cotter has been terrible. They still don't think they've done anything wrong."
At the same time in Golden, Colorado, a jury ruled against four workers and their wives formerly employed at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. They had sued Brush Wellman, a supplier of beryllium--a strong, lightweight metal--for covering up information about the hazardous material.
The jury in the case ruled that Brush Wellman was not liable for the workers' illness and dismissed claims of a conspiracy between the company and the federal government. Additionally, they declared the workers themselves were 10 percent to 20 percent responsible for their sickness, based on the fact that workers assumed a risk by working at Rocky Flats. The ruling said the major blame lay with the operators of the plant, Dow Chemical and Rockwell International, for sloppy management.
For 50 years Brush Wellman told the public that there was no risk of chronic beryllium disease if the factory kept beryllium dust to two micrograms per cubic meter of air, equivalent to a ground up pencil tip being scattered in a six-foot-high football-field-sized mass of air. In fact, Brush Wellman and federal officials knew in the 1940s that an even smaller dose could kill, said Allen Stewart, attorney for the plaintiffs.
The workers did contract chronic beryllium disease, a potentially fatal wasting disease. Along with uranium miners, the atomic bomb workers at Rocky Flats are still eligible to receive up to $150,000 from the government as well as medical coverage for their illness. But the government has allowed this fund to run out of money. Despite a proposal by the Senate Appropriations Committee in June to add $84 million to the budget, the funds have not been allocated.
Rocky Flats, 15 miles from Denver, produced nuclear weapons components until December 1989. The key part made there was the plutonium pit, the "trigger" for atomic bombs. The pit provides the energy to fuel the explosion of a nuclear weapon.
In 1989 nuclear production work was halted following an FBI raid and after two decades of antinuclear protests, which demanded that plutonium at the site be moved elsewhere and that Rocky Flats be closed.
Brush Wellman, an Ohio company with plants in Arizona and Utah, faces more than 70 lawsuits involving nearly 200 plaintiffs. The next suit is to go to trial August 6 in Knoxville, Tennessee, involving workers at the nuclear weapons plant there.