“At the meeting, I did tell the Workgroup [May 12 in Simi Valley] that without them I couldn’t have had the knowledge or known the contacts to go up against the Department of Labor and NIOSH,” says Klea. “I had collected a moving box full of data to submit to the Department of Labor to prove no monitoring, bad monitoring and falsified data. I realized that I was the only worker who could write a Special Exposure Cohort Petition for our workers and without it, no one would get paid. The Workgroup detractors haven’t been attending the meetings for 15 years and haven’t seen what I have seen; and really, they don’t want to know the truth.”
Klea now finds herself in the eye of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) storm, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, she points out, only 148 cases out of 834, or 18 percent, have been paid to the workers of the lab’s Area IV, where the nuclear work took place at the Department of Energy’s ETEC or Energy Technology Engineering Center.
All nuclear employees who worked in the 290-acre area from 1955 to 1964 for at least 250 days and suffer one of the 22 specified cancers are eligible. Klea wants that time frame extended eventually to 1988 and for workers expected to take part in the $1 billion cleanup.
“Downey and Canoga are finished for the [Department of Energy] period — everyone will be paid, and all I have left is DeSoto and SSFL,” Klea says. “I am now working on 1965 to 1970. It is getting harder but I understand that NIOSH has no neutron measurements during that period because the badges did not pick them up. I don’t think NIOSH ever had any records to do dose reconstruction, so I won’t quit.”
This wasn’t the life Bonnie Klea expected when she moved to California in 1962 from a small town in Minnesota after graduating from a business college. After working in the mortgage industry for one year, Klea had the opportunity to interview for a job at SSFL for Atomics International. The Atomic Energy Commission did an extensive background check on Klea and she was hired.
Part of Klea’s job was to drive around and deliver paychecks on Friday to all the workers. The terrain was rugged and the support buildings were all outside of her office space, so she made daily treks to the mail and supply rooms, ditto building and the photo and x-ray labs.
“The mountain was a beautiful place to work,” says Klea. “I did what I was told even though I did not know the nature of the work. I had a ‘Q’ clearance and did not try to understand what was going on for reasons of national security.”
Years later, she would find out what was going on at “The Hill” during the go-go Cold War years of 1963 to 1965 at ETEC. Klea’s daily duties for the Department of Energy took her by 10 experimental nuclear reactors, a “hot lab” for cutting apart radioactive reactor rods brought in from around the country for disposal, and a “sodium burn pit,” where radioactive barrels of sodium were tossed into a gooey toxic muck and shot at to explode the canisters to incinerate the sodium.
Klea was onsite when one of the worst disasters happened at SSFL in 1964, and 80 percent of an experimental space nuclear reactor’s fuel rods cracked, leaking radioactivity into the atmosphere from the unfortified reactor building. A similar disaster occurred again in 1969, with a third of a space reactor’s rods cracking.
The meltdowns have left the groundwater contaminated with radioactive “heavy water” or tritium. Six years ago, the VC Reporter covered revelations that this groundwater was used for drinking at the lab until 1964 (see “In Hot Water,” Sept. 23, 2004). This practice of pumping up the goo for workers to drink took place even though the tritium at that time was estimated to be more than 60 times what is considered harmful by current drinking water standards.
That year, Rocketdyne began supplying workers with bottled water because employees complained of the foul taste and color of the onsite well water that they drank. It is unclear how many workers continued to drink groundwater at SSFL after that, since exclusive use of imported water for drinking only began in the late ’70s, according to Steve Lafflam, former Rocketdyne division director for Safety, Health and Environmental Affairs.