In May 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama joined a team of his fellow Illinois lawmakers to demand federal compensation for 47 people who had been exposed to radiation between 1957 and 1960.
They had worked at the old Dow Chemical plant in Madison, Illinois, that once helped fuel America’s nuclear weapons arsenal, about 20 miles east of St. Louis. It processed uranium under a subcontract with St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Chemical Co., which was working with the Atomic Energy Commission to process fuel rods for nuclear reactors.
Workers had high hopes that Obama would do more to help sick workers when he moved to the White House in 2009, but their hopes quickly fizzled.
“I wouldn’t have anything to say to him,” said Don Thompson, 79, a Granite City Council member who worked 35 years at the Dow plant, from 1961 to 1996, first in the maintenance department, then as a welder. “I’m very disappointed in him.”
In Illinois, 2,537 workers or their survivors at 17 different sites have applied for cash under the compensation program run by the U.S. Department of Labor.
So far, 1,029 of them have received about $149.5 million in payments. Fifty-five percent of the workers compensated, or 574, have died, a McClatchy investigation found. In many cases, that money went to survivors.
Many workers say the federal compensation program has become too complicated and arbitrary, burdened by red tape and long delays.
And many complaints center on the fact that employment records have vanished at facilities that have either closed down or changed hands since the 1960s.
In February 2006, Obama sharply criticized efforts by President George W. Bush to cut benefits for sick nuclear workers. He told Bush the White House plan “demonstrates a startling lack of compassion for workers who sacrificed their health to provide for our national security.”
Obama noted in his letter to Bush that of 164 cases filed at the Dow Chemical plant, only two had been paid.
Then the next year, Obama recommended making changes to many aspects of the program. Among them: He suggested looking for legislative remedies to address how decisions are made on claims, to impose a time limit on adjudication and to increase transparency with the process.
Donna Hand, a Tampa, Florida,-based advocate who has represented nuclear weapons workers across the nation, said that Obama had been a passionate advocate for sick workers as a senator but then reversed course.
“When he became president, he ignored everything,” she said.
Jamie Ellis, a spokeswoman for Dow, defended the company, saying it “has always been a leader in setting the standard for industrial hygiene and has always been transparent and cooperative with the federal government.”
Terrie Barrie, an activist from Craig, Colorado, who wants to change the program, said Obama did take one important step that could improve the program in the long run: He created a 15-member board that will advise the Labor Department on technical aspects of the program.
One advisory board for the program has been overseeing some aspects of the compensation program since the program was established. That board works primarily with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
But Barrie said the new board will have the power to fix major flaws, including the program's high rate of claim rejections and long delays for applicants.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment, referring questions to the Labor Department.
In the meantime, Thompson, who suffers from prostrate cancer, said he has had enough.
He said he has abandoned his fight against the bureaucracy after having his claim repeatedly denied because of missing records. He said it stemmed from the fact that two of the physicians who treated him had died.
“You just get tired of dealing with them,” Thompson said.
Mike Fitzgerald: 618-239-2533.