Original Publication Nov. 13, 2006
Part two of a three-part series
GERMANTOWN — Sherrie Neff was just out of high school in 1967 when she landed a job at Miamisburg's Mound Laboratory.
"I was proud of working out there," said Neff, 58. "I trusted the government. I thought they were not going to jeopardize our health over there.
"I guess that was stupid of me."
She found her first cancer in 1983. She felt the lump in her left breast as she was nursing one of her children. Neff had a mastectomy on June 8, 1983. When she recovered, she went back to work at the Mound.
Neff, a former Germantown councilwoman, worked there until June 2004. Since then, she's had four major cancer surgeries. In April, doctors amputated her right leg near the hip because of a rare soft-tissue cancer. On Oct. 11, they removed her right lung to extract a tumor the size of a melon.
How much compensation has she received from the government she served?
If Neff had worked at Piketon's Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, she would've received as much as $400,000 in cash plus medical benefits. But since she worked at Mound, she has received only stacks of claim forms to fill out — followed by denials.
And bills. Neff's lifetime $250,000 in medical insurance is exhausted. She has paid $46,000 out of pocket so far. She can't afford a prosthetic leg.
Sick workers from most federal nuclear installations, including Mound, have an uphill battle in proving their cancers were caused by on-the-job radioactive exposures so they can qualify for federal compensation.
A Labor Department program automatically compensates atomic workers at Piketon and 10 other U.S. plants if they have any of 22 cancers that can be caused by radiation exposures, including breast and lung cancer. Workers at other nuclear plants, including Mound, must go through a complicated claims process that overwhelmingly results in denials.
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Neff and other Mound workers want to petition the government to allow Mound to have the same "special exposure cohort" status as Piketon under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act of 2000. But a memo that was leaked earlier this year raised concerns that the Bush administration wants to prevent plants such as Mound from getting the special status — not for scientific reasons, but to control program costs.
It's "a very well thought out agenda to squelch any new cohorts," said Richard Miller of the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group. Miller, who helped to develop the program, called the memo "a devastating blow to the entire program because it undermines its credibility."
Credit: Handout photo
Credit: Handout photo
The memo suggested that administration officials should have veto rights over admissions to the special cohort. Officials of the White House budget office, the Labor Department and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health repudiated the memo, but some congressmen remain concerned. A House Judiciary subcommittee plans hearings for Wednesday and Thursday on the matter.
Because they don't have special status, workers at places such as Mound and the Feed Materials Production Center in Fernald must submit to a paperwork process called dose reconstruction. The process compares medical and work histories to known plant hazards to determine if there's at least a 50 percent chance the cancers are workplace related.
When Congress enacted the compensation program, Piketon and the two other U.S. uranium enrichment plants — at Paducah, Ky., and Oak Ridge, Tenn. — were among those getting special status because it was felt their workers faced unusual hazards and plant records were too sketchy to determine whether workers got sufficient toxic exposures to make them sick. But Roberta Mosier, deputy director of the program for the Labor Department, acknowledged there were "also probably some political concerns" in granting the status, because congressmen near the enrichment plants pushed hard for it.
The special status has helped many Piketon workers get compensation: 28 percent of cases involving Piketon workers have been paid to date, versus 15 percent for Fernald and less than 12 percent for Mound workers.
Only 133 of 1,109 claims involving 679 Mound workers have been paid so far.
Workers at Fernald and at the pre-Mound Monsanto Chemical Co. Dayton Project of 1943-49 have already petitioned for the special status and are awaiting rulings.
Mound was a top-secret government defense research and production facility where workers processed radioactive polonium and plutonium, produced nuclear detonators and developed a thorium reactor.
Neff said Mound deserves special status because "there were no records kept years ago" in some areas and "a lot of the books and records and files got thrown away" when the plant closed. Also, documentation "was only as good as the person keeping the records — and I just don't have faith in that anymore."
She said she had many different jobs at the Mound over the years. "I worked with a lot of radionuclides, chemicals, gases, metals," Neff said. "I had so much knowledge. They called it 'cradle to grave.'
"The only real protection I had was steel-toed shoes and safety glasses."
Neff first filed for compensation for her 1983 breast cancer in December 2001, shortly after the federal program began.
While she was waiting for a ruling, in September 2004, doctors removed a cancerous tumor from her left leg. She reapplied, seeking compensation for the breast and leg cancers.
Credit: Chris Stewart
Credit: Chris Stewart
In November 2004, the Labor Department turned down Neff's original claim relating to the breast cancer only. A dose reconstruction estimated her career exposure to radiation at 16 rem, documents show. Officials called that an "overestimate."
Rem is a unit of measurement that relates the absorbed dose in human tissue to the biological damage of the radiation. Not all radiation has the same effect, even if the dose is the same. A single chest X-ray gives about two onehundredths of a rem.
Just six months after Neff's first dose reconstruction, the same three officials of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health who signed it sent her a second reconstruction for both the breast and leg cancers. This time, her breast exposure was listed at just 2.5 rem while the leg was 8.3 rem, for a total dose of 10.8 rem.
In other words, NIOSH estimated Neff's dose for two cancers far lower in the second reconstruction than it did earlier for only one cancer.
NIOSH found a 43.76 percent probability — below the required 50 percent — that Neff's breast and leg cancers were workplace-related, and she was again denied compensation.
Credit: U.S. Dept. of Energy
Credit: U.S. Dept. of Energy
Her husband, Bob, said he thinks program officials manipulate the numbers to keep workers from reaching the 50 percent probability mark. "That's what I believe — they do their own testing and they make the rules up as they go along."
Stuart Hinnefeld, a health physicist with NIOSH, said the institute uses overestimates to clear cases when scientists feel certain the cases won't meet the dose requirement for compensation. Upon further examination, the doses can come back lower, he said, but all reconstructions are designed to err in the claimant's favor.
Critics say it's often impossible to accurately reconstruct exposures that occurred decades ago.
Two months after Neff's second denial, in August 2005, doctors found cancer in her right lung. She had the lower lobe removed and underwent 96 hours of chemotherapy and 38 radiation treatments.
The cancer in her leg returned a few months later, resulting in the amputation on April 10. A checkup revealed a recurrence of the lung cancer, leading to the removal of the lung last month.
Early this year, federal officials revealed to Neff for the first time that an X-ray from her 1983 physical exam at Mound showed scarring that could indicate she has beryllium disease from exposure to the toxic metal. Neff filed a beryllium claim, which was rejected earlier this month.
She still has a pending claim that she may have been sickened by Mound exposures to chemical hazards.
As part of the claims process, the Labor Department asked her for a list of all the toxins she recalls encountering at Mound. When Neff asked the Energy Department to provide her with that information, she was told it would cost her $35,000 in fees for staff time and copying.
"It's like I've got a vicious Catch-22 here," she said. "I feel like I'm beating my head against a brick wall, and I'm just one individual."
Neff said the latest surgery has left her deeply fatigued. She has been on morphine since the amputation in April. In addition to pain from her surgeries, she still experiences an amputee's "phantom pain" — the sensation of being stabbed in her missing heel.
"I have never smoked a day in my life, never drank, never did recreational drugs," Neff said. "I just worked at a bad place."