20 Feb Nuclear energy worker receives justice from Department of Labor
Feb. 4, 2017
ST. PETERS, Mo. – “I’ve been fighting for 10 years,” said John Heid, former nuclear energy worker.
From 1990 – 2000 Heid worked as a welder and sheet metal mechanic at the Rocky Flats Plant in the outskirts of Denver, CO.
According to the Department of Energy (DOE), the Atomic Energy Commission established Rocky Flats in 1951 to produce nuclear weapon parts from plutonium, uranium and beryllium. After years and years of production, large volumes of hazardous and toxic waste were created. As a result, in 1991 the DOE ordered a waste clean-up that lasted until 2006. All sites at Rocky Flats are now demolished, waste is removed and contamination is now at regulatory levels.
When Heid first started work, the plant was still in production mode. He thought he knew what he was getting into in accordance with what was taught in job classes.
“They told us that [the plant] was safe and that we didn’t need to worry about the radiation. But boy, did they pull the wool over my eyes. When it got down to the nitty gritty and we started working, it was nothing that they had taught us,” said Heid.
Plutonium, uranium and beryllium are heavily used elements for manufacturing nuclear weapons. What was unclear to many was the consequential side effects of working with these metals such as cancers, pulmonary issues and other illnesses.
Heid and many of the other workers were not originally aware of the serious health risks involved in their work. Even if something did seem out of place, no one questioned authority in fear of potential consequences.
“I did what I was supposed to do. I went into areas that were pretty intense with high security clearance. It was like bungee jumping every day – it gave you willies in the stomach,” said Heid.
At times Heid and his coworkers were provided with protective clothing and went into buildings with full face respirators and oxygen assist. What was most frightening for him is when they were told they didn’t need them when they had at other times.
Shelly Heid, John Heid’s wife, remembers a time when her husband came home saying, “Boy, they almost had to shave my head! I almost lost all my hair today!”
Heid’s hair had turned up hot for radiation and needed to be washed out; in this case, almost cut out. In another instance, he was stripped down to his underwear to undergo decontamination.
Many compared one of the zones at Rocky Flats similar to a prison. It was enclosed with a fence and guard tower with guards at the gates and a “nobody in, nobody out” policy.
“One guy got so scared that he ran through the guard post and the guards had to chase him down. He couldn’t handle what we were doing,” said Heid.
There were 100 men working as sheet metal workers at the plant. Thirty-five of them, including Heid, were referred to as the “hot crew” because of the high-level radiation work. To Heid’s knowledge, at least 12 of them have died from various cancers since 2000.
For the past 10 years, the Heids have been fighting to receive some sort of medical benefits through the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA). In short, it hasn’t been an easy process.
“[The DOL] originally denied that I even worked there,” said Heid.
Because of his high security clearance, it was nearly impossible to prove that Heid worked at Rocky Flats. Fortunately, Mrs. Heid kept old pay stubs in her file to prove his previous employment.
“It was an absolute fluke that I kept it. Had I known that file existed, it would’ve been burned years ago,” said Mrs. Heid.
Despite the proof of employment and Heid’s illness, the DOL’s denial letters for medical benefits became all too familiar for the couple.
“We could have a city-wide bonfire with all the papers, files and denial letters that [John] has got,” said Mrs. Heid.
Fortunately, the two found the extra push of help they needed in September 2016.
Atomic Resource Coalition (ARC), a 501(c)(3) non-profit, assisted Heid in the EEOICPA claims process from successfully receiving approval from the DOL for medical benefits, to directing him to a Resource Center to request an impairment rating from the DOL.
Despite the past 10 years of fighting for answers and approval, the Heids worked with one of ARC’s Lead Specialists, Stephanie Tufts, who helped settle their case in 4 months.
“I want to give Stephanie an ‘atta girl’ for the work she’s done. She was truly amazing how she got the ball rolling for me,” said Heid.
Upon accepting the DOL’s recommendation for approval, the Heids will now have the medical benefits needed for John to attend appointments and receive treatments.
Heid wants to advise all former energy workers not to quit and to keep at it, because they all deserve help and support after the work they’ve put in.
“Thank God it’s over. Want to hear something crazy? I loved doing what I was doing. But, you know…” said Heid.
ARC’s mission is to provide assistance and support for all current and eligible beneficiaries working through the EEOICPA claim process. All former nuclear energy workers or their survivors are encouraged to contact ARC to see if they qualify under the EEOICPA for medical benefits and/or compensation. For more information, visit ARCeducates.org or call 844-686-8355 to find out how ARC can assist you.