Monday, October 11, 1999

Paducah plant whistleblower proved right

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Clara Harding holds a copy of a Swedish publication that carried a picture of her husband on the day before he died.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        PADUCAH, Ky. — Twenty years after his death, Joe Harding — who died with mutated joints and nail-like growths on his body — is known as a hero instead of a screwball.

        He once was ridiculed for waging a battle against his former employer, Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, and claim ing that the federally owned plant caused his deadly cancer.

        The U.S. Department of Energy owns the plant, which uses a process called gaseous diffu sion to enrich uranium for use as nuclear reactor fuel.

        The department, which oversees a costly environmental cleanup of the plant site, is investigating why workers were unwittingly exposed to plutonium and other highly toxic and radioactive substances and whether contractors who operated the plant covered it up.

        Now others are echoing the claims of Mr. Harding, who lived in Paducah, saying they were also exposed.

        And the people who once shunned Mr. Harding are hugging his widow, Clara, and daughter, Martha Alls, at public gatherings in this Western Kentucky city of more than 27,000.

        “They said they thought he was a screwball, but they now realize he was the smartest one there,” said the 58-year-old Mrs. Alls, speaking of a recent event where U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson recognized her father.

        “He was probably the strongest, bravest man I'll ever know,” the Murray, Ky., woman said of her father. “He had no one to stand up with him — no companies, no lawyers, no attorneys. ...”

        Union Carbide, the original managers of the 750-acre plant, began making enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and power plants in 1952. The plant was part of the government's nuclear weapons production system, which also included Fernald Feed Materials Production Center in Crosby Township, Ohio, and the K-25 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

        In Paducah, which is about 15 miles from the plant now operated by U.S. Enrichment Corp., not many have heard of Joe Harding. But they're quite familiar with the plant.

        “It's a disgrace,” said John Boaz, 67, of Wingo. “It's awful the way they covered up.”

        His older brother worked there in the 1950s, drawn like so many others by the job security.

        “You had a job up there and you had something,” Mr. Boaz said. “There was nothing else that paid like that.”

        At the Arcade Barber Shop, the Paducah plant is the subject of many conversations. Barber Ken Carter said the clientele is especially worried now that the deer-hunting season is approaching and deer could be contaminated.

        Washington Post reports have cited court documents that indicate radioactive contaminants from the plant spilled into drainage ditches and seeped into creeks and a state-owned wildlife area.

        Many plant workers are patrons of the barber shop. Mr. Carter noted that they have been teased about where they work and “turning a little green.”

        But “they're not going to give up a good job like that,” he said.

Few would listen
        Mr. Harding's determination to share his story was epitomized when he talked to a Swedish journalist the night before he died. The death was from cancers that Mr. Harding said were caused by radiation.

        Mrs. Harding and Mrs. Alls have dealt with many journalists over the years and say they are determined to share Mr. Harding's story.

        “This time, don't let them sweep it under the carpet. Let them know that it's real,” Mrs. Alls said.

        Mr. Harding was fired from his job in 1971. At the time, Mr. Harding thought he would receive 100 percent disability. Instead he got none.

        In a 32-page handwritten note to Union Carbide, Mr. Harding detailed his health problems and interactions with doctors, lawyers and politicians.

        The tone of the letter is angry, disjointed, rambling, bemused and embittered. But it sheds light on why this man went to work in Paducah and why he stayed for 19 years, even after his body began to deteriorate.

        According to the letter, he went to work at the plant the year it opened and was excited about the opportunity.

        “I got a job at Carbide,” he wrote. “Big deal. Important, patriotic, secret work. I was 31 years old - 175 pounds, strong, never sick, could eat anything.”

        But within one year, Mr. Harding wrote, rash-like sores appeared on his ankles, spread over his body and remained until he died.

        Yet his supervisors said: “You will not get any more radiation in this work than you would get from wearing a luminous-dial wristwatch,” he wrote, later noting, “Leaks, smoke and powdered uranium all over everything. Upstairs always had a thick haze of (uranium) smoke in it.”

        He began vomiting after meals in 1955 — a habit that earned him the nickname “Joe Earp.” Ninety-five percent of his stomach was removed six years later, the same year that marked his nine-year anniversary with the plant.

        Yet, because he was told not to worry about exposure, he didn't want to believe the plant could be making him sick. He once called a doctor “nuts” for hinting at radiation damage, the letter said.

Why not leave?
        Mrs. Harding remembers how her husband would come home and talk about his teeth feeling gritty from the dust at work. He would also tell her about cold and hot spots at the plant.

        So why didn't he quit?

        Mr. Harding had a family to support; and if he quit, he would lose all claim to disability benefits.

        Mr. Harding started repairing air conditioners after he was terminated. He also visited many doctors because of his health problems.

        When he gave up on getting disability, he started contacting lawyers, politicians, Department of Energy officials and the media. Many didn't respond.

        Mr. Harding was at a Memphis hospital when he decided to return to Paducah and talk to the Swedish journalist the night before he died.

        “He knew it wouldn't be long that he would die,” Mrs. Harding said. “He fought it as long as he could.”

        She pursued his claim for worker's compensation for 18 years and received a settlement last year. Her share was about $9,000.

        Mr. Richardson, the energy secretary, has recognized her persistence with a medal.

        “On behalf of the government, I'm here to say I'm sorry,” he said, while presenting an award to Mrs. Harding in September. “The men and women who have worked in this facility helped the United States win the Cold War and now help us keep the peace. We recognize and won't forget our obligation to them.”


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