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Klea lost her battle for worker’s compensation, in which she says she was threatened by corporate lawyers who blamed her for the illness, claiming that it was household chemicals, airplane flights and drinking sodas that had caused her cancer. She failed in that fight but she learned a lot.

In 2006, Klea started preparing her case for Special Exposure Cohort (SEC) status for SSFL but had to prove to NIOSH that the lab had bad worker radiation monitoring or none at all, and falsified data. Using a box of information collected from 10 years of participation in the Workgroup meetings, she began to piece together a puzzle she found very disturbing, one that included a suspect environmental monitoring program at Rocketdyne where samples were routinely burned in order to lower the radiation values.

“I started rereading everything I had, made notes and did highlighting,” Klea says. “I spent one year reading, copying records and summarizing for NIOSH the reasons why Santa Susana should have the SEC status.”

In May of 2007, NIOSH sent letters to applicants whose claims had been denied about a special meeting to inform them of the SEC program. Klea handed her petition to their representatives at this time and met many claimants and heard their stories of cancer and denial of benefits. Her petition qualified for acceptance later that year and, by 2009, all the workers or their families were paid for 1955 through 1958. NIOSH found that the internal monitoring for Santa Susana was inadequate and because all the facilities used the same monitoring program, Downey, DeSoto and Canoga facilities now have a very good chance of having claims paid, though the vast majority have not been settled.

“Bonnie, I can’t thank you enough for the work you have done!” wrote Ventura County resident Wendy Carr in an e-mail to Klea on May 21. Carr’s father, Vernon Burgett, was a fireman for six years at SSFL and at Rocketdyne’s Canoga facility for where he earned a commendation for putting out uranium fires. “Today, I feel as if a load of bricks has been lifted off my shoulders. I feel, for the first time in six years, that my dad did not die in vain. Please know that although much of your work will never be appreciated by others, you have changed my family’s life forever!”

SSFL Workgroup co-chair Dan Hirsch of the nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap, praised Klea at a Workgroup meeting in February.

“I think everyone here needs to understand how much you owe to Bonnie, who has been tirelessly trying to defend other former employees who had health problems from their exposures, relatives of people who died,” Hirsch said to the Simi Valley audience. “She has succeeded in getting the federal government to recognize these cohorts, these groups of workers for compensation. The world is held up by people who don’t give up. Bonnie didn’t give up and you have succeeded and you’ve helped a lot of people.”

Unlike Erin Brockovich, the very talented paralegal who helped this reporter when I first started investigating Rocketdyne in 1998, Klea has never had the backup of a law firm. But what she did and does have is the personal power and integrity to get the job done of compensating America’s nuclear workers for injuries suffered in the course of their historic work. It is a job that Klea has clearly relished.

“I now know that when my life is over that I have accomplished my purpose for being here and that there was a reason for going through trials and suffering to see justice for our injured workers and families who were devastated by death and cancer of family members,” Klea says. “I feel victorious and want to continue to help the workers. The feelings for the injured families go very deep into the soul, and the satisfaction of helping them is a quiet, strong satisfaction.”

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Cover illustration by Ryan Samuel Carr

20 years of ongoing SSFL/Rocketdyne investigative reporting
June 1998June 2018

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