Nuclear settlement money little solace for survivors in Armstrong County

| Sunday, May 4, 2008

Eliza Johnson knows that all the money in the world can't raise her husband and daughter from their graves.

If it could, she'd find a way to earn, beg, borrow or steal enough to see Fruitie Johnson and Deborah Lawhorn again. She'd love to know how good it would feel to talk to them once more, to laugh, to have a reason to cook a big meal and lay it out on the empty table in her wood-paneled dining room.

To Johnson, that would be a victory, not a check from the companies she holds responsible for the cancers that killed them and others in Apollo, Leechburg, Vandergrift and Parks Township.

"They meant more to me than if I got a million dollars," said Johnson, 85, staring at wrinkled hands folded on her lap. "My daughter ... that's one in my life that I'll never get over."

Johnson and some 250 plaintiffs soon will receive payments from a $27.5 million settlement with Atlantic Richfield Co. for illnesses, deaths and property damages caused by radioactive emissions from two former nuclear fuels plants in Armstrong County started by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. in 1959.

Still, they don't feel rich.

Those who are sick from brain tumors, cancer and beryllium disease say they're too weak and miserable to spend it on something fun, such as a vacation. Disheartened survivors are grappling with grief, anger and guilt.

"Whatever I do, it's not going to bring them back," said Johnson, who lives in the Kiskimere neighborhood in Parks Township.

Made for TV

The NUMEC story is one that has been told in movies such as "Erin Brockovich" and "A Civil Action." The plot is familiar: small-town activist or beleaguered attorney discovers a dangerous environmental condition, takes on a corporate giant and eventually wins one for the downtrodden.

The corporate giant, NUMEC, used deadly radioactive materials -- uranium and plutonium -- and other chemicals to process nuclear fuels under government contracts with the U.S. military during the Cold War. Atlantic Richfield took over its plants in Apollo and Parks Township, in 1967. Babcock & Wilcox Co. bought out ARCO's stock in 1971 and operated the plants until 1983.

The activist is Patty Ameno, 56, a disabled Navy veteran who blames her two brain tumors on a childhood spent living across the street from the Apollo plant that created uranium fuel pellets for nuclear reactors. Ameno, a plaintiff who will share in the ARCO settlement, argues that the mishandling of radioactive materials sickened and killed her neighbors and friends.

Although the state and federal government never designated the area officially as a cancer cluster, an epidemiologist hired by the plaintiffs to review data from the state health department found a cluster of cancers that "falls outside the normal range."

That finding, and "a lot of hard work and advocacy," helped to prove their claims, according to plaintiffs' attorney William Caroselli of Pittsburgh. He said average settlement payouts from ARCO will total about $35,000, and a few people might get as much as $500,000.

A federal lawsuit is pending against Babcock & Wilcox.

Ameno won't rest until cleanup is complete at the Parks Township plutonium processing plant site, where an undetermined amount of radioactive material remains buried. In the early 1990s, NUMEC's buildings were destroyed and thousands of tons of radioactive materials and soil were removed before the cleanup at the Apollo site concluded in 1995.

She wants people to be compensated for their roles as "unwitting victims of the Cold War" because the plants were regulated by the federal government.

"That nuclear industry ruined this area, and the government failed miserably," Ameno said. "People in this town just assume they'll die of cancer."

Indeed, there is an air of resigned acceptance throughout these blue-collar neighborhoods, where black and gold Steelers flags decorate porches and children play a few hundred yards from the former plant sites.

Elaine Waldenville has lived in Kiskimere for 38 years. She said her asthma has gotten worse, and her dog, Zena, died of cancer, but she has not joined in the lawsuits. She worries about the future, though, because many of her neighbors are sick, or like Johnson's family, already gone.

"But it's not like you can sell houses here, so we can't move," she said.

Heavy losses

Caroselli said people with the most serious illnesses who can prove a direct link to exposure to the plants are likely to receive more compensation than others. Survivors of the dead and those who are claiming only property damage will receive considerably less.

Many plaintiffs plan to save the money for co-payments for doctors, prescriptions not covered by insurance and those unmerciful "rainy day" emergencies caused by aging appliances and long-neglected home repairs.

Patricia Trebilcock of North Apollo said she could use a new stove and a newer used car to replace the 15-year-old clunker rusting in her garage. But what she really wants is the life she planned with her husband, Larry, before July 11, 1994, when the colorectal cancer that spread to his liver and lungs finally killed him.

They were going to retire and travel, spend time at a hunting and fishing camp, and finish the house they were building. Instead, she was forced to use their savings and his pension to complete enough work on the home to make it livable.

She relies on her Social Security check to survive, so any amount of money from the settlement will help.

"But money can never take over for a person you loved and lost," she said.

Some, like Carla Chruscik of Vandergrift, who lost her mother, Anna Mae Chruscik, to cancer, are overcome with grief. Chruscik, sobbing into the phone during a brief interview, said only that she "can't believe the companies got away with this."

Her mother's case was among eight that went to trial in federal court in 1998, when jurors returned a verdict of $35 million in their favor. U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose later found that trial errors warranted a new trial and set aside the decision.

"All of the verdicts were taken away," Caroselli said.

Babcock & Wilcox then filed bankruptcy and the cases were not retried.

Hidden dangers

Frustrated plaintiffs who lived in neighborhoods near the plants say they had no reason to suspect they were in danger because they believed the government was monitoring the operations.

They thought they were safe.

Employees were just as confident, said Gary Walker, 67, who grew up in town and worked at the Apollo plant for 30 years. He said he was exposed to uranium "quite a few times" during a career that began in 1959.

"Back then, they threw that stuff around like it was nothing," Walker said. "No one really knew what it could do to you."

Walker is among thousands of former NUMEC workers from the Apollo plant who qualify for a $150,000 payment from the government under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act passed by Congress in 2000. Workers from NUMEC's Parks Township plant have been recommended for the same status, with final approval expected sometime this summer.

They are not eligible to sue the companies.

Walker, who suffers from beryllium disease and underwent a kidney transplant, gets up at 4:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for four hours of dialysis because of a second failing kidney. His arms are riddled with lumps from the weekly treatments that zap his strength.

Looking back, if he'd known then what he knows now, Walker said he never would have taken the job that paid $1.50 an hour when he started and about $13 when he left.

"They never warned us. Early on, there was a taped line on the floor that divided the contaminated area from the side that wasn't contaminated," he said. "But it was in the air."

From 1959 to 1963, Lawrence Frain lived on Armstrong Avenue beside the Apollo plant. He didn't worry about pollution and soot that spewed into the air and often sent a grayish-white film raining down onto his 1960 Ford.

Frain and others didn't realize what they were breathing.

"I remember a guy walking around with a meter. Every now and then, he'd say 'They let a lot out last night.' Neighbors thought he was a little off, but maybe he knew something," he said.

Frain, 68, had melanoma. His sister and niece died of cancer. All around him, neighbors were sick and dying from various cancers.

It wasn't until his wife, Helen, was diagnosed with colon cancer in the late 1990s that the couple joined in the lawsuit.

"She was full of it," Frain said. "The doctor who operated on her asked me if we lived close to the plant and when I said that we did, he said, 'I thought so.'"

His wife died at 61 in 2001, after three years of suffering through surgery, treatments and wearing a colostomy bag for waste removal. The retired coal miner took care of her until he needed help from hospice nurses for the last six weeks of her life, but even then he slept in a recliner in their living room because he didn't want to leave her side.

"After she died, I got rid of everything in the room because I couldn't look at it," Frain said. "It's pretty bad to watch someone die."

Eliza Johnson watched it twice -- first with her husband, and then with her daughter, a cancer research nurse. She took care of them when they were sick, held their hands during chemotherapy treatments, slept beside their beds.

And in the end, she buried them.

"I'd have rather it been me instead of them," she said.

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