"We need the money and we’ll have a good retirement, but when I die, turn the lights off and watch me glow," said the late Dan Kurowski to his wife, Lorraine. "Big Dan," as his co-workers called him, worked from 1964 to 1997 as a radioactive-waste packer at Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a nuclear and aeronautical facility used by NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission during the Cold War, McClatchy DC reported.
Years later, Kurowski died a painful death, from pancreatic cancer attributed to his exposure to radioactive substances. Yet, when he sought compensation from a government program to help workers exposed to radiation and toxic substances at US nuclear sites, he was denied.
Kurowski’s story is not an isolated incident, as hundreds of Santa Susana workers fell ill and died of similar illnesses attributable to their exposure to radioactive substances. All of these individuals were denied compensation by the federal government.
The Department of Energy stated that these workers were unable to prove that they were ever commanded to work in a section of Santa Susana known as Area IV. The Department of Labor, tasked with distributing compensation, claimed that they were only authorized to use funds for Area IV workers.
The claimants, composed of a few surviving workers and family members of the deceased, argue that the Department of Labor failed to recognize how "fluid" the jobs, contracts and work locations at the site were, with staff regularly dispatched to work in the radioactive Area IV.
One of those survivors, Bill Shepler, suffers illness today from his time working on a joint NASA-Department of Energy project. From 1981 to 2005, Shepler worked on projects including experimental reactor steam generation and electrical systems for the space station. Shepler often worked in Area IV, but has been denied compensation because his official clock-in location was in another region of the facility, called Area II.
Shepler says, "I spent a good year or two in Area IV if you add it all up, but there are no records."
Boeing, a major US defense company and the lead civilian contractor on the joint project, claimed in a statement that it provided records to workers, establishing their locations, including not only their clock-in locations, but also radiation exposure and industrial hygiene records throughout the day.
The workers remember things differently, arguing that Boeing and the US government have rewritten history because they failed to keep records accounting for worker movements.
Santa Susana workers argue that employees should not be forced to prove their presence in Area IV 'after the fact' because Department of Energy contractors used the entire site. They claim the federal government is at fault for failing to maintain appropriate records of exposure.
Kurowski died of pancreatic cancer in 2003, while his claim was pending. When his widow, Lorraine, attempted to file a survivor claim Boeing emailed her stating that her husband’s personnel record had been destroyed, eliminating any hope for her to prove a claim.
Kurowski’s wife Lorraine, like many Santa Susana victims and family members, is not giving up. "I’ll let my kids fight this and my grandkids and my great grandkids," said Lorraine. "They asked me to sign off, but when my husband used to tell me 'shut off the lights and watch me glow,' I can’t do that."