A Laurel to the Rocky Mountain News

Send tips and suggestions to dartsandlaurels@cjr.org

Laurel to the Rocky Mountain News for uncovering a systemic effort by a federal Department of Labor program to deny compensation to former nuclear-arms workers sickened by exposure to radiation.

In January 2008, the Denver-based Rocky launched a six-month investigation to examine why thousands of sick workers were experiencing extensive delays and rejections when they sought compensation from a federal program created to serve them. In the three-part series that resulted, deadly denial, published in July, reporter Laura Frank, with the help of project editor Jim Trotter and reporter Ann Imse, showed that the “Labor Department has delayed the cases of sick nuclear weapons workers or their survivors across the nation by giving misleading information, withholding records essential to their cases, failing to inform them of alternative paths to aid, repeatedly claiming to have lost evidence sent by ill workers and making requirements for compensation impossibly high.” Throughout the series, the Rocky hammered home a central point: these problems were not a result of bureaucratic bungling, but rather a conscious plan by the Labor Department to avoid paying claims.

Frank wrote her first story about the plight of the nuclear workers in 1997 as a reporter at The Tennessean. Former employees at plants where uranium was processed into bomb fuel began developing a variety of cancers and other diseases that their doctors couldn’t explain. At first, the government denied that radioactive materials and related toxic substances were making the workers sick. Then in 2000, in a surprising about-face, the Clinton administration created the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program within the Department of Energy to pay medical bills and provide compensation.

The Labor Department took control of the program in 2004, the same year that Frank came to work at the Rocky. In 2007, she reconnected with the story after hearing that many sick workers from the nearby Rocky Flats bomb-production facility had had their claims denied by the compensation program, even though Department of Labor officials had said the effort was succeeding and thousands of workers had received compensation. “I remember thinking very clearly, ‘Is there something systemically wrong or is this just a very complex program running into run-of-the-mill bureaucratic problems?’ ” Frank says. “I didn’t know which it was.”

To answer the question, Frank interviewed hundreds of ill workers around the country and reviewed stacks of documents from the departments of Labor and Health. In the process, she discovered one former employee, a worker from an Iowa plant, who had his claim rejected because he has prostate cancer, an illness that was on a so-called no-pay list that had been compiled by the Labor Department to identify conditions that it said were not caused by radiation. Frank investigated the list’s origins, and learned that its creation coincided with an effort by the Bush White House to control the growing cost of the compensation program.

At this point, Frank says, she started to “look at everything in a different light.” She didn’t see the timing as happenstance, but rather as a hint that the Labor Department may have begun intentionally rejecting legitimate claims.

Next, Frank created a timeline of various decisions made by the Labor Department and compared those to the medical and correspondence records of the workers whose claims had been denied. The comparison indicated a system that pitted sick and dying workers, or their families, against a bureaucracy set on saying no. For example, the department required workers to report how much radiation they were exposed to at their jobs. But the classified nature of the work made this impossible, leaving workers without access to materials that could help prove their cases.

Frank tried for two months to get department officials to grant her an interview or respond to the paper’s findings. In the final days before deadline, a response was repeatedly promised but never arrived. In the end, Rocky editor John Temple decided to publish the series without comment. “Our experience became indicative of what the workers had gone through and, to me, reinforced the unreliability of the bureaucracy,” Temple says. “To me, it revealed how screwed up that agency is.”

As a result of Frank’s series, several U.S. senators and congressmen introduced legislation to expedite worker claims. By late September, a group of seven senators had come together to call for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office into the department’s handling of the claims. In the meantime, many of the people Frank interviewed are growing sicker, still waiting for reimbursement.
The Rocky received dozens of letters and calls from other sick workers around the country, telling stories so similar to the ones Frank wrote about, that she is confident that her sources are not statistical anomalies, but representative of a corrupt system.

In mid-September, Frank finally got a response from Labor Department officials: a stern admonishment in an e-mail that blasted her for having “completely inaccurate” information in one of the graphics that accompanied her articles. Its lone substantive gripe? The graphic included a Department of Labor seal that, the letter suggested, made it appear to be an official department document when it was not. 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.