Government & Politics

Kansas City’s nuclear legacy trails weapon makers and their families

Marlon Smith of Kansas City, Kan., worked at the Bannister Road nuclear plant. He wants to be compensated for chronic beryllium disease.
Marlon Smith of Kansas City, Kan., worked at the Bannister Road nuclear plant. He wants to be compensated for chronic beryllium disease.

Marlon Smith worked as a roofer at the Bannister Federal Complex in south Kansas City for just five months in 2005.

That’s all the time it took for him to suffer irreparable damage to his lungs by inhaling particles of beryllium, a hazardous metal used in nuclear weapons production.

Today the 58-year-old has chronic beryllium disease, a serious respiratory condition that can be fatal.

Smith says the subcontractor he worked for never warned him about the dangers of beryllium exposure, even after he asked why other workers in a tent a few yards away from him were fully suited in protective gear.

“I said, ‘Where is my suit?’ ” he recalls. “They said, ‘You don’t need one. You need just a dust mask.’ 

News that beryllium and other toxins sickened workers at the site broke years ago. But a recent investigation by the federal government revealed that some employees at the Kansas City Plant might have been exposed to more radiation than previously known. Already, the government has paid workers from the plant, or their survivors, tens of millions in compensation for illnesses and deaths. That figure is still growing.

The now-shuttered bomb-making plant at Bannister Road and Troost Avenue where Smith breathed in beryllium dust was built during World War II to make engines for Navy fighter planes, but it transitioned to producing parts for nuclear weapons in 1949.

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The Department of Labor lists 2,498 toxic substances used at the plant over the years, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), beryllium, asbestos, mercury, lead and depleted uranium. And the latest investigation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and an advisory board appointed by the president has turned up proof that operations at the site in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s involved more radioactive materials — and potentially higher radiation doses to workers — than previously disclosed in the public record.

More than 1,440 workers who fell ill after working at the Kansas City Plant have applied for compensation and medical coverage from the federal government. The money comes from a fund created in 2001 to recognize the sacrifices made by nuclear workers who helped America fight the Cold War.

Smith received a check this year for $150,000 from the federal government, a sum he considers a paltry price for his life and livelihood.

“How can you put a price on somebody’s life?” he asked.

The roofer is in a group of nearly 300 former Kansas City Plant workers who have received more than $55 million in compensation for illnesses linked to their work, according to an analysis of government data obtained by McClatchy Newspapers through the Freedom of Information Act.

In more than half of the cases, the money went to survivors after the workers died.

Most of those who applied to the federal fund got nothing, including the families of at least 554 deceased Kansas City Plant workers whose claims the government denied.

The approval rate for cases involving former workers at the plant is particularly low at just 23 percent — less than half the national average, McClatchy’s analysis found.

Workers and their relatives say they’re confounded by the paperwork and bureaucracy of the claims process.

Otha Gilliam has a stack of documents for his late parents’ compensation cases at least a foot thick in his home in south Kansas City.

The struggle to follow through with the claims leaves him overwhelmed.

“All we’ve been getting is denials,” he said. “They ask for a copy of a birth certificate, and I send it to them. Then they ask for a copy of the death certificate, and I send it to them. Then they ask for a copy of their marriage license, and I send it to them.”

His father, Buster Reed Jr., worked in waste management at the Kansas City Plant for about three decades. Documents describe him as a “chemical material handler” and show that he was exposed to beryllium.

He died of pancreatic cancer in 2009.

“It seems like everyone in his department all died of pancreatic cancer,” Gilliam said. “My mother was very angry about it. They knew they were exposed to something.”

Elizabeth Reed cleaned machines and picked up metal scraps at the plant from 1975 to 2003.

Gilliam said his mother filed a claim after his father’s death. Then she got ill and was distracted from following up. She had a stroke and died in 2013.

Her son has taken on the work of pursuing the family’s claim.

“It’s very frustrating. I feel we should be compensated for this,” he said. “Instead, they’re fighting us.”

In an effort to ease the burden of proof on people like Gilliam, workers and their advocates filed a petition with the federal government in 2013.

The petition sought to create a special classification for those who worked at the Kansas City Plant between 1949 and 1993. If granted, the designation would have made it easier for the workers to obtain compensation by exempting them from a complicated dose reconstruction process to determine the likelihood that their cancers were caused by exposure to radiation.

That petition argued that there was no way to accurately estimate the workers’ doses because of the secrecy surrounding their jobs and because so many were neither properly trained nor protected from the toxic exposures.

“They were treated as disposables,” said one of the petitioners, Wayne Knox, a former nuclear health physicist.

After a two-year review, a presidential advisory board voted last month to recommend that the secretary of health and human services turn down the petitioners’ request for a special classification. No secretary has ever gone against a board recommendation.

But in the process of evaluating the petition, newly uncovered records and interviews with workers show that the Kansas City Plant had more operations involving radioactive materials than previously disclosed — and that workers might have been unknowingly exposed, including janitors, clerical workers and waste handlers whose radiation levels were not closely monitored.

As a result, government officials will change the dose reconstruction formula used to evaluate claims for former employees of the Kansas City Plant. Some workers’ dose calculations might increase, although it’s not yet clear whether that will affect the decisions for any claims.

For years, multiple federal agencies and the plant’s contractors repeatedly stressed there were no significant health risks associated with working at the Bannister Federal Complex. As recently as 2013, a report on the complex’s environmental condition by Honeywell, the site’s contractor, stated that there was no history of use of radioactive materials there, except for depleted uranium, which is only mildly radioactive.

But that description doesn’t give a complete picture of operations at the Kansas City Plant, which took up about half the 300-acre Bannister complex.

As the government now acknowledges, work with natural uranium took place at the plant in the early 1950s. Natural uranium emits about twice as much radioactivity per gram as depleted uranium. Workers also machined magnesium alloys containing thorium, a radioactive element, in the 1960s and ’70s. And they used tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, to prepare calibration sources and produce luminescent switch plates. Radioactive nickel-63 was plated on disks that also were used to calibrate radiation detectors.

The natural uranium and mag-thorium alloy machining could result in the biggest bumps to workers’ estimated radiation doses, said Stuart Hinnefeld, director of NIOSH’s Division of Compensation Analysis and Support.

However, officials deemed the likely doses from tritium and nickel exposure essentially inconsequential.

“Candidly, when we began researching Kansas City … we found some of this radiological work activity that the current staff at the Kansas City Plant wasn’t aware of,” Hinnefeld said.

He said officials made seven fact-finding visits to the plant and interviewed 56 former workers.

“We’ve done a pretty exhaustive records search as part of this (investigation), but if you’re asking me if it’s perfect, I guess I don’t know if we’ll find any other work that was done there that we didn’t know about,” Hinnefeld said. “But I’d be surprised if we had a major revision.”

For Maurice Copeland, who worked at the Kansas City Plant for 32 years, the revelations about additional radiological operations at the facility just confirm his suspicions that the government and its contractors covered up or minimized health hazards faced by workers.

Copeland now serves as an advocate for those who got sick after working at the site. He sees the failure of the petition, which he championed, as just the latest disappointment in a years-long battle to get justice and financial help for sick colleagues.

It’s little consolation to him that some workers’ dose reconstructions might be reworked in light of the new information about radiological work at the plant. Many former Kansas City Plant workers distrust that process anyway. And employees of the General Services Administration, who worked adjacent to the plant at the Bannister complex, still won’t qualify for compensation.

“They’re hopeless as far as anything getting better,” Copeland said.

In the next few years, the entire Bannister complex is slated for demolition and redevelopment. It’s a prospect that alarms Copeland and other former workers because they worry it could erase further evidence of their contamination and release toxins into the surrounding neighborhood.

A year ago, CenterPoint Properties, the firm picked by the Department of Energy to redevelop the site, started an environmental and engineering evaluation of the property projected to take 18 months. It will take six more months or so to process the results of that study.

Any demolition will need to be done in a way that contains contamination in the soil and water and protects construction and demolition workers from exposure, said Kevin Breslin, an attorney and a member of the CenterPoint Properties redevelopment team.

Breslin expects that much soil will be removed from the site. Some deeper contaminated soil will be left in place, but in a way that will be stable and prevent any of that contamination from spreading or posing a hazard to people working there, he said.

In accordance with government regulators, CenterPoint also will have to put plans in place to manage stormwater to prevent the runoff of contaminated material.

New construction is scheduled to begin in 2019.

In all, the cost of demolition and cleaning up contamination has been estimated at more than $175 million, an amount Copeland says vastly underestimates the task. He doesn’t believe the government has been honest about the extent of contamination.

“They cannot clean that place up,” he said. “And they will not clean it up.”

As the fate of the old plant and its employees hang in the balance, a state-of-the-art $700 million replacement for the Kansas City Plant has sprung up in a former soybean field eight miles away to carry on the nation’s nuclear mission.

The energy-efficient National Security Campus sprawls over 1.5 million square feet and employs 2,600 people who produce the parts needed to modernize the nation’s aging nukes.

Workers at the new plant use lead for soldering and commercially available tools that contain sealed sources of thorium and tritium for test equipment calibration. Depleted uranium also is used in production processes, and beryllium is present in some copper alloys and in the form of purchased products, such as connectors that have beryllium-copper contact pins.

Honeywell has transitioned from managing the old plant to running the new one for the DOE. In a statement, the contractor said that both facilities are in compliance with the government’s strict regulations for worker protection standards, including regular workplace sampling and cleaning, employee training and medical monitoring.

But if any of the employees at the new plant do get sick one day from toxins they encountered on the job, the Department of Labor told McClatchy, they also will be eligible for compensation from the feds.

Levi McDaniel, who worked at the old plant for 28 years as a laborer and janitor, can’t say that he has any regrets.

“It was a decent-paying job,” said McDaniel, 77.

He spent one or two days a week in rooms where beryllium was cut by machinists. It was his job to sweep up the cuttings with a pitchfork — these were long, thin pieces of metal that could stretch 2 or 3 feet and were about the width of a fettuccine noodle. McDaniel put them into 55-gallon drums. He wore gloves, coveralls, safety glasses and occasionally a mask, but no dosimeter or film badge to monitor his exposure to radiation.

What bothers him is that the government never warned him he might be exposed to anything dangerous. Then it denied his compensation claims. He doesn’t understand why.

“I don’t know which way to go,” he said. “I feel like something should be done. I didn’t get a penny.”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise

The plant

The now-shuttered facility at the Bannister Federal Complex made airplane engines during World War II. For decades afterward, the plant made components for nuclear weapons. Some operations involved radioactive materials.

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