June 19, 2000
The Honorable Togo West
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary West:
I am writing to strongly urge you to support expansion of disability compensation for veterans exposed to ionizing radiation. I believe such a change in your position is warranted in light of the Administration's recent support for placing the burden of proof on the Federal government to disprove the link between the development of radiogenic cancers and the exposure of Department of Energy (*DOE) nuclear weapons plant workers to radiation, with compensation for almost all forms of cancer.
As you know, for several years I have sought to add three radiogenic diseases--lung cancer, colon cancer, and brain cancer -- to the current VA list of presumptively service-connected conditions. You have opposed this legislation. However, your position with regard to compensation for veterans appears to be inconsistent with Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson's position with regard to DOE nuclear plant workers.
As you know, Secretary Richardson has now taken the position that the burden for proving the claims of workers at DOE weapons plants who were exposed to radiation should be shifted from the workers to the government. Secretary Richardson has boldly moved to establish a DOE workers' advocacy office to help expedite workers' claims and, in the absence of exposure records, to assume that workers were exposed to the highest amount of radiation associated with the tasks they performed. Legislation to accomplish this goal has been introduced in both Houses of Congress, with bipartisan support.
In addition, Secretary Richardson himself specifally praised a related amendment offered successfully to the Defense Authorization bill two weeks ago by Senator Thompson. The Thompson amendment would compensate certain DOE workers for cancers that would be presumed related to radiation exposure, which include the very same cancers I have sought to add to the presumptive list for veterans.
There are striking similarities between the treatment meted out by the U.S. Government to atomic veterans and to DOE nuclear plant workers. There is no question that both groups are casualties of the Cold War. Both the veterans and the DOE workers are victims of Cold War secrecy -- secrecy that went beyond legitimate concerns about imperiling national security. Atomic veterans were not informed by DOD or the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) of the known hazards they faced, and they were even denied access to their own service medical records on grounds of secrecy. For 38 years -- from 1952 to 1990 -- The DOE, the AEC, and the contractors concealed from workers the fact they were exposed to plutonium and other hazardous radioactive substances.
The U.S. Government failed to maintain adequate exposure records on either atomic veterans or DOE workers. This is a key radionale both for expanding the number of presumptive diseases and for shifting the burden of proof to the federal government to demonstrate that military or workplace exposures did not cause disabling illnesses. We may never know what level of radiation atomic veterans and DOE workers were exposed to, since records were spotty or non-existent. Film badges to monitor exposures were issued to only some atomic veterans, who often wore them for limited periods. At DOE plants, film badges were read only irregularly, at times contained no film, and readings were doctored to understate actual exposures. Compensation decisions cannot be based on film badges used in such a manner that provide no information on internal radiation doses, a crucial element in the etiology of many radiogenic diseases.
Veterans groups have already taken a strong position against inconsistent treatment of DOE workers and atomic veterans. Disabled American Veterans National Commander Michael Dobmeier deplored the fact that atomic veterans "suffer debilitating illnesses and disabilities but are treated as second-class citizens by the federal government." He added that these veterans "deserve no less than equal treatment" than that accorded DOE nuclear plant workers.
Similarly, American Legion National Commander Al Lance, noting that President Clinton says he wants to "right the wrongs of the past" committed against workers who built America's nuclear arsenal, issued this elequent and heartfelt plea: "As...National Commander I would stand proudly with any Administration that would announce a new position: That ailing veterans exosed to radiation--in any form-- will receive the benefit of the doubt that their illnesses are service-connected...Just the same treatment the Administration extends today to civilian victims of nuclear nightmare."
As you know, the Senate has already gone on record in support of expanding the presumptive disability list for atomic veterans. Last year the Senate on three occasions supported two amendments and one Sense of the Senate resolution, each of which added lung, brain, and colon cancers to the VA presumptive list. These strong expressions of Senate support came in the face of your adamant opposition to expanding the presumptive list. In fact, I am afraid that your opposition to this expansion may have played a part in the failure of this legislation to be enacted, notwithstanding the Senate's support.
Mr. Secretary, I urge you to carefully consider following Secretary Richardson's lead to "right the wrongs of the past" by supporting expansion of the VA presumptive list to include lung, colon, and brain cancer. If you cannot support such an expansion, I would ask that you provide an explanation of how your position on compensation for veterans is consistent with the Administration's position on compensation for DOE nuclear weapons plant workers.
Thank you for your consideration of this request. I look forward to your response.
/s/ Paul David Wellstone United States Senator
cc: The Honorable Bill Richardson, Secretary of Energy, The Honorable Thomas Garthwaite, Acting Under Secretary
for Health; The Honorable Joseph Thompson, Under Secretary for Benefits.