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Nuclear weapons workers, families file for compensation in Bridgeton

Former nuclear weapons workers and their family members wait to file claims for a federal compensation program at the International Union of Operating Engineers Hall in Bridgeton.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Former nuclear weapons workers and their family members wait to file claims for a federal compensation program at the International Union of Operating Engineers Hall in Bridgeton.

Former nuclear weapons workers in the St. Louis area -- whose jobs may have put many of them at a greater risk for cancer, silicosis and other illnesses -- may be eligible to have their medical bills paid and receive lump-sum payments under a federal program.

But many workers and their surviving family members don't know about the program, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, which is why representatives are in Bridgeton this week conducting outreach sessions.

Under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, workers or their families can file for medical benefits that cover treatment for cancers that are associated with exposure to radiation, as well as a lump-sum compensation that is capped at $400,000.  

“You work around a lot of that stuff, you don’t know what you’re working with because they don’t tell you,” said AlvinTolandJr., a 69-year-old retired welder who worked for contractors at nuclear sites in Hematite and Weldon Spring.

Toland points to a patch of skin cancer on his nose, a condition that will likely make him eligible for compensation under the program. But he’s also a smoker and worked in an era when the dangers of welding fumes were not well known, and some modern health precautions were not yet in place. When it comes to cancer, causation is hard to prove.

“It could be a combination of everything,” Toland said.

But the memories of moments that he believes he could have been exposed are haunting — like a day at the fuel-cycle facility in Hematite when radiation was detected on his and his coworkers’ boots. The contractor took their shoes and had the men walk out of the site wearing booties.

“There’s so many people that’s been exposed to stuff, but they don’t even know it. How come all these companies know about it? They know about it, but they don’t tell people,” Toland said.

About a dozen people waited in a hallway at the International Union of Operating Engineers Hall on Tuesday with similar thoughts. An elderly woman with silver hair hoped to get enough compensation to hire a home health aide to help care for her ailing husband, a former security guard. A retired teacher shared memories of running her fingers through her father’s thick, curly hair, and the yellow powder that would rub off on her fingers. After his death, she realized it may have been yellowcake — a solid form of uranium oxide that her father had been exposed to on his shifts at Mallinckrodt.

According to the Department of Labor, more than $193 million have been awarded to workers and their surviving family members in Missouri through the program. The outreach event in Bridgeton will continue Wednesday and is the second time the program’s representatives have visited the region.

“We do these outreaches so we can try to get the word out, and rely heavily on word of mouth,” said senior claims examiner Latrice White. “A lot of people in the area are not aware of our program.”

According to White, the average processing time for a claim is between four and five months. 

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Durrie Bouscaren was a general assignment reporter with Iowa Public Radio from March 2013 through July 2014.
Durrie Bouscaren
Durrie Bouscaren covers healthcare and medical research throughout the St. Louis metro area. She comes most recently from Iowa Public Radio’s newsroom in Des Moines, where she reported on floods, a propane shortage, and small-town defense contractors. Since catching the radio bug in college, Bouscaren has freelanced and interned at NPR member stations WRVO, WAER and KQED. Her work has aired on All Things Considered, KQED’s The California Report, and Harvest Public Media, a regional reporting collaborative.