I-TEAM | Nuclear fallout: A former SRS worker’s fight for funds

Published: May. 11, 2023 at 6:11 PM EDT|Updated: May. 16, 2023 at 10:57 AM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The United States government could be breaking a promise made to thousands in our area who answered the call to serve in the Cold War and to help clean up the dangerous mess it left behind.

For years, our I-TEAM has been exposing a high cancer rate among those who worked at the Savannah River Site. It is so high, Congress eventually passed a law to make it easier to get money and medical benefits, but as our investigation uncovered, it appears the Department of Labor denies more claims than it approves.

WATCH: The I-TEAM’s Meredith Anderson goes behind the story of Harvey Reif and others who are fighting for health funds from SRS.

The I-TEAM crunched the numbers and found only 41 percent of claims program-wide get approved. That’s fewer than half. It’s even worse for those at SRS.

We did the math, and the latest numbers show an approval rate of around 34 percent. That means the Department of Labor denies 66 percent of applications.

They served in secrecy, but it’s no secret the mission behind the curtain at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site was to weaken the Iron Curtain.

Thousands battled the Soviet Union not by firing weapons, but by helping to make them. During the Cold War, SRS produced the nation’s tritium and a third of its weapons-grade plutonium, but the nuclear arms race came at a cost.

“The radiation is dangerous. The contamination is more dangerous,” says Marin Renew in a previous I-TEAM report in 2016.

Because of that danger, President Clinton signed a law to help those getting sick from radiation exposure. Workers, or even their families left behind, could qualify for up to $400,000 plus medical benefits.

It’s called the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA).

On its website, the Department of Energy promises “timely, appropriate, and accurate decisions” and “prompt payment,” but for years, we’ve exposed a process that’s anything but.

“I’ve been denied three times, I believe already,” Joseph Keenan told our I-TEAM back in 2016. Renew was denied multiple times. Sherri Floyd told the I-TEAM in 2016 she was denied three times when she applied for her dad.

Others answered another call: what to do with the nuclear waste. Fast-forward to 2023, and the I-TEAM sat down with Harvey Reif.

“I would have never stepped foot in those facilities knowing what I know now. I would have done something else with my career.”

Oddly enough, Reif’s career had nothing to do with nuclear weapons at first.

He began with nuclear power almost a year to the day after the Three Mile Island Nuclear Disaster on March 28, 1979. A partial meltdown of a reactor in Pennsylvania also caused a partial meltdown in the nation’s sense of security.

It led to a host of new regulations for nuclear energy.

In 1986, an accident in the former Soviet Union further cemented the need for safety plans; an explosion at Chernobyl sent clouds of radioactive material into the sky, contaminating nearby cities that, to this day, look like ghost towns.

“Because in the nuclear world, there’s no room for error,” explained Reif.

That’s exactly why the Department of Energy needed people like Reif.

Just two years after Chernobyl, he started working at SRS. His main job was making sure everyone stayed safe, but he never imagined he might not be safe.

He certainly never expected the fight for his life would also include a fight with the government.

“We were 54 when we started. Now we’re 73,” explained his wife, Mary Jo Reif. “It was like somebody threw a switch, and like, my health went south, all at one time,” added Harvey.

In 2002, he had five skin cancers. Two years later, in 2004, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, kidney cancer on both his left and right side, rectal cancer, and three more skin cancers. From 2005-2012, doctors removed ten more skin cancers. In 2016, Reif learned he had pancreatic cancer. From 2018 to 2021, doctors discovered fourteen more skin cancers.

“Any one of the cancers that I had could have taken me out, could have killed me,” Reif said.

According to the Department of Labor, any one of those cancers could also mean Harvey Reif could be entitled to compensation and medical bills because he worked at multiple Department of Energy-covered facilities.

There are more than 300 of them across the country, but SRS has so many people with cancer, it’s known as a special cohort. That means approval is just about automatic if you have at least one of 22 cancers and worked there during certain years.

Reif has four of the cancers listed, and his employment fits the cohort timeframe.

To date, Reif hasn’t seen a single penny. “I have not received any compensation whatsoever,” he told the I-TEAM.

The I-TEAM found it’s not from lack of trying. His claims have been denied time and time again. He’s appealed them, too. The I-TEAM has copies of his hearing transcripts from 2011 and 2016. Even with his doctors linking his cancers to radiation exposure, it wasn’t enough.

“I’ve got eight, probably approaching now 9000 documents,” he said.

He can’t understand why, with all that information, the Department of Labor constantly seems to need more.

“They seem to find, continuously find other reasons, to provide them with continuing information and, and to drag this out with the hope, I think that I die. That’s a terrible thing to say.”

Terrible – yes.

But the I-TEAM found numbers buried in a Senate report that could support that. Two decades ago, when the program was starting, the then-Secretary of Energy suggested it would cost $120 million a year for the first three years and then rapidly decline after that.

Nope. Not even close.

As of this month, it’s more than $23 billion, and that’s just in claims and medical bills. It doesn’t even count what it costs to run the program. Claims approved after Reif’s death would mean Reif’s family would receive half than if his claim were to be awarded while he’s still living.

“It’s been horrendous,” Reif said.

Reif is considered an end-stage terminal, and by law, that means the Department of Labor is supposed to expedite his claim. Instead, he says the Department of Labor continues to drag this out.

“It’s difficult to understand, are these people that cold and calloused?”

Mary Jo Reif says it’s been difficult to watch.

“It’s emotional. It’s very hard. I hope that they acknowledge this so he can have peace before the end of his time because he has no peace. This eats at his soul day and night.”

That’s because, for the Reifs, this isn’t about the money. It can’t buy Harvey his health, but Mary Jo says the benefits, including home health care, could make things easier.

“I could keep him at home, and they would pay for people to come in and help me,” she said.

For Harvey, it’s also about the government fulfilling a promise.

“This is not the country that my wife and I grew up in,” he said.