By Michael Collins
The eyes of Bonnie Klea are extraordinarily bright and unblinking. There is no trace of self-pity for her courageous fight against bladder cancer, now in remission, or her years-long battle with Boeing, Rocketdyne and various federal agencies over the rights of other sick radiation workers.
Instead, there is the steady look of someone who has said, “Enough is enough — let me handle this,” and who went and did just that. Hundreds of Ventura County residents and their families will soon know the bounty that Bonnie Klea has secured for them.
“When I was very young, my parents labeled me as stubborn and bull-headed” says Klea. “Now I realize that those characteristics can be an asset when one is seeking justice from the United States government and a large corporation. For 15 years, I have been seeking justice for myself and others.”
Those assets now count in the tens of millions because of new laws that are kicking in over the next few months to compensate ill Cold War Era radiation workers, thanks to Klea. Hundreds of nuke workers are now eligible for the costs of any one or more of 22 ailments associated with radiation exposure, lost wages and a $150,000 lump sum payment, tax free, for the cancer they’ve endured.
The federal monies are a result of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, passed in 2000 by the Clinton Administration. EEOICPA is administered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, under the auspices of the Department of Labor.
“Up until this time, the federal government helped the corporations fight all worker claims for radiation exposure illnesses,” says Klea. “I called the Department of Labor immediately to find out which companies were listed. I was shocked to see Atomics International and Rocketdyne listed with work sites at DeSoto, Canoga, Downey and Santa Susana.”
The infamously polluted Santa Susana Field Laboratory, called SSFL but better known as Rocketdyne, is the site of the worst nuclear meltdown in the nation’s history in July 1959. The Sodium Reactor Experiment, or SRE, experienced melting to a third of its core, sending radiation spewing out of the uncontained building above Simi Valley. Quantities of radionuclides escaping the crippled reactor were hundreds of times more than the radiation that escaped at the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania.
For years, Klea has been involved in the fight to have the 2,850-acre east Ventura County lab cleaned up, which is how she came to learn of EEOICPA. In May, Klea became a panel member of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Workgroup that meets quarterly in Simi Valley under the umbrella of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Klea will need all her moxie to tackle this new role as a community representative monitoring the cleanup of Rocketdyne that is scheduled for completion in 2017 after costing upward of $1 billion. Lab owner Boeing has sued the state over the cleanup, claiming that the admissible cleanup levels for contamination are too strict.
Workgroup members recently convinced the Los Angeles Regional Water Board not to relax pollution controls for the millions of gallons of effluent with high dioxins, lead and alpha radioactivity that sluice off of Rocketdyne each year. That goo flows through the American Jewish University Brandeis-Bardin Campus into the Arroyo Simi aquifer that provides the eastern part of Simi Valley with drinking water. The toxic slush also flows downhill into the Los Angeles River.
The Workgroup panel itself has come under attack by a combative group of meltdown deniers and self-appointed Rocketdyne experts that complicates the community’s longtime struggle.