May 14, 2007
Article Launched: 05/12/2007 08:57:32 PM MDT
Even during the blithest years of Los Alamos National Laboratory when the place took on an especially sanitary look and lab leaders motto seemed to be "What, me worry?" savvy scientists knew they were playing with more than mere fire. Radiation poisoning was just one of the early clues; cancer wasn't far behind.
But some daring people persevered in pursuit of super-weapons America's politicians hoped would deter our nemesis, the Soviet Union, from launching their nuclear bombs in our direction. Mutually Assured Destruction, as the doctrine came to be known, was MAD, all right even though there was method to it.
What wasn't as clear was why this country's finest mathematicians, chemists, physicists and engineers could push the risks of contamination to the backs of their brilliant minds and take comfort in lead sheeting and other shields concocted after zapping animals and watching the results. From the nuclear garbage spewed down the arroyos outside the laboratories to the hydrogen-bomb components assembled inside, sometimes in close quarters, the wizards were working with dangerous stuff.
When cancer struck, denial came with it: People everywhere get it; that's life ...
Or death. Or fear prompted by certain symptoms. Or misery. Or loss of an organ, maybe only part of it.
Those Northern New Mexicans who knew less about the cancer risks tend to be the bitterest about what hit them physically and bureaucratically: Can you prove that your cancer came from exposure to radiation on the job? Or was it radon that occurs naturally all over the West? Or was it something else?
Decades of official responses such as that prompted Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to push for an Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act. Passed in 2000 while Bingaman was chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the law is good as far as it goes.
But it comes with that catch: prove that you've got a radiation-induced and work-related cancer.
Most people knowledgeable enough to prove that probably would have stayed away from LANL in the first place and making a case before the Bush Department of Labor seems to demand the background of a J. Robert Oppenheimer.
So we're encouraged by the effort of our state's Speaker of the House, Ben Lujan of Nambe, whose constituents include hundreds of lab employees: He got a $125,000 appropriation through the Legislature to open an office of advocacy for folks who figure their medical problems come from work on the Hill.
That money, most likely, isn't nearly enough. Lujan had sought $610,000, and that would only be a start. And it's strange that New Mexico taxpayers have to pay for it at all: As the speaker notes, "all we're trying to do is to get the Department of Energy to live up to its obligations. Some of these people have legitimate complaints."
Maybe not all of them but where there's the slightest doubt, the federal government should err on the side of the claimants. As Bingaman points out, thousands of workers took part in experiments at LANL "and only later were some of them determined to be dangerous to their health. I strongly believe that they should receive compensation and medical care for the important work they performed."
His support, and that of Rep. Lujan, come under the category of better late than never. What's needed now is legislative-branch follow-up, at the state and federal level.