Sparring for nuclear weapons workers takes South Carolina lawyer down little-used path

The small green building behind the business center on Montreat Road is quiet these days, except for the corner office with a lawyer’s shingle hanging from a post.

It’s the domain of Bob Warren, a 71-year-old South Carolina native who almost went broke representing people sickened by radiation and chemicals. Once the top barrister in a four-person legal office, Warren is today the only one left.

Warren, who has been slowed by Parkinson’s disease, shows up every day for work in what has become a more than 10-year fight against the federal government.

He takes calls from the families of ailing workers, examines piles of documents he’s obtained through open records requests, and collaborates with a fellow lawyer in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. The work can be sad at times, but Warren says it’s hard to shake the image of a person who got sick working at the Savannah River Site, a nuclear weapons complex near his hometown of Allendale, South Carolina.

“Listening constantly to people in desperate situations didn’t give you a choice but to try and help them,’’ the mild-mannered Warren said during an interview in this town in the western North Carolina mountains.

Warren’s work began in 2002 after he decided to challenge the government on behalf of people who say the Savannah River Site caused cancer and other illnesses. A federal program had been set up to compensate former Department of Energy employees at nuclear weapons sites across the country, including SRS along the South Carolina-Georgia border.

But not long after its inception, people began to complain that the program was little more than a bureaucratic maze of rules so tedious that the average person couldn’t navigate it. Many were turned down for compensation that could have helped them pay bills.

Some people sought lawyers, only to be turned away because the attorneys believed working on the employees’ behalf wasn’t lucrative enough.

But Warren was glad to take the cases, he said. Warren liked the idea of taking on the government on behalf of sick DOE workers. It’s the kind of cause he has championed throughout his 42-year legal career. It also dovetailed with past work he’d done at SRS, which included a 1970s-era case on behalf of an employee who claimed the site had made him sick.

“It’s always rewarding to follow your conscience,” Warren said. “It’s difficult to come up with the money to be able to help them. You’ve got phone bills and computers and all the other things that are inherent to a law practice. It’s been difficult, but kind of fun to outsmart the ‘corporation.’”

The effort to represent sick workers made it hard for Warren to pay his staff, which ultimately caused his employees to leave. Warren wound up borrowing about $100,000 to finance the effort, he said.

By his count, Warren has represented hundreds of people. They either worked on the Savannah River Site or they are the families of those who have since died from what they said were site-related illnesses. He’s also represented a handful of people who worked at other federal nuclear facilities, including the one in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

While many of his clients are still waiting for compensation, others have benefited from Warren’s work.

In 2012, he helped persuade the federal government to make it easier for hundreds of ex-SRS workers to receive compensation. The federal government declared that year that many people who worked at SRS from 1953 to 1972 would receive benefits without having to prove the plant caused their illnesses. Many had tried unsuccessfully for years to show that their cancers were caused by working at SRS.

David Anderson, Warren’s former office manager, said Warren’s drive to help Savannah River Site workers reflects a career of aiding the less fortunate. Anderson had that point recorded in the minutes of a 2014 meeting of a federal health advisory board Warren works with on behalf of workers.

“As a young lawyer, he took the rural cases that other lawyers wouldn’t touch,” Anderson told the federal health panel during an April 29, 2014 meeting in Augusta, Georgia. “He never made any money – still doesn’t – but earned a reputation (as) someone who would stand up for the little guy.”

Warren works with the advisory board on behalf of SRS workers.

Warren’s SRS fight doesn’t surprise those who’ve known him through the years. In the early 1970s, soon after graduating from the University of South Carolina law school, Warren returned to his home town to open an office.

Instead of taking traditional legal cases, Warren began representing African Americans and others who were not part of the Allendale area power structure. He also criticized state and federal judges for what he said was a bias against the poor.

Those types of cases, however, didn’t set well in the Deep South of the 1970s, particularly in Allendale. Warren said an entire bridge club that his wife belonged to quit en masse to protest his effort to help blacks gain entrance to a community swimming pool. He also challenged the federal government over policies at SRS.

“At the time, he was perceived as a pinko communist trying to help Russia take over America,’’ said Tom Johnson, a South Carolina lawyer and friend of Warren’s.

“His moral code sometimes excluded all pragmatism. He was willing to pay the price for his principles. In Allendale at the time, that basically meant fighting for black people.’’

The response to his work in Allendale County caused him to leave South Carolina 35 years ago and settle in the North Carolina mountains, Warren said. Since that time, he has handled similar cases on behalf of the less fortunate.

Warren hasn’t made much money from the SRS cases because the federal program limits attorneys fees – sometimes to as little as 2 percent of an award. Generally, personal injury cases can bring lawyers a third of the awards, if not more.

Several years ago, as bills rose and income did not, Warren’s office staff slowly left to take other jobs, leaving only Warren to run the practice from a small corner of the larger office building he once rented in Black Mountain.

He has a co-counsel in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, Warren Johnson, who helps with the effort.

Warren said he never envisioned how difficult it would be financially, but it was hard to ignore what he considered a public need. The grandfather of seven is now trying to persuade the federal government to expand the category of workers who could become eligible without having to prove radiation made them sick. He argues that records don’t exist to allow them to prove their doses, so they should automatically qualify, in certain situations.

Linda Harper, a former SRS worker, said she appreciates the effort. Her cancer-stricken father received compensation after Warren represented him.

“He’s done everything he could to help us,’’ said Harper, a Nashville, Tennessee, resident. “He’s done a lot of work, he’s done a lot of studies. He didn’t quit. He continued to try for us.’’