Widow of SC nuclear site worker wins 14-year battle with the feds

Sammy Fretwell
·6 min read

A South Carolina widow who says her husband was exposed to toxins at a federal atomic weapons complex has won a 14 year fight with the government over compensation for the man’s death.

The federal government has agreed to pay $275,000 in the death of construction worker Jerry Bolen, a father and grandfather who worked on the Savannah River Site for parts of three decades beginning in the 1960s.

His widow, 72-year-old Carolyn Bolen, applied for compensation in 2007, not long after his death, under a labor department program established to provide benefits to ex-workers and their families for illnesses that resulted from employment at SRS.

But the government had repeatedly turned down pleas for the financial help she said that she needed to pay bills, including her own doctor bills. The long-running dispute discouraged Carolyn Bolen at times, but the memory of her husband’s agonizing bout with cancer kept her from quitting the effort to gain compensation, she said.

“I just couldn’t believe after all these years, we finally got it,’’ said Bolen, a Barnwell County resident who lives on a fixed income and has had rheumatoid arthritis.

Josh Fester, an attorney representing her, said the family’s determination is impressive.

“They were over the moon excited about this decision,’’ Fester said. “I think one of them actually cried. They had worked so long and hard.’’

The Bolen case has been of interest to other ex-SRS workers still struggling to gain compensation through the program set up 20 years ago to help sick atomic weapons site workers across the country.

Some critics have questioned the program, saying cancer and other illnesses are not just caused by radiation exposure.

But many former SRS workers say they need money for medical bills, while the families’ of others say they need benefits to help fill the financial void left by the deaths of their loved ones.

The program, most of which is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, has in many cases been a morass of red tape and long delays for people seeking compensation, critics say. Some people wait years for a decision, only to learn they’ve been turned down.

In Jerry Bolen’s case, his family took the unusual step of suing the government for compensation, after exhausting virtually all appeals through the federal compensation program. The federal suit was filed against the U.S. Department of Labor in November 2020, The State reported.

Jerry Bolen worked as a subcontractor to construction companies at SRS, a federal weapons complex near Aiken that was a key cog during the nation’s Cold War effort. Bolen died in 2006 after being diagnosed with bladder cancer, a condition that left him in extreme pain, his widow says.

Fester and Carolyn Bolen’s son, Tim, said the lawsuit persuaded the government to reverse its hard-line position against providing compensation.

But it shouldn’t have been necessary, they said.

““We tried to use the system, and I thought we had plenty of evidence,’’ Tim Bolen said. “But we just kept getting rejected.’’

All told, Carolyn Bolen is receiving about $185,000, after attorneys fees, as a result of the government’s recent decision.

The government obtained additional information that helped change its position on compensation for Bolen’s family, a March 5 U.S. Department of Labor decision document shows.

A labor department spokesperson said the agency could not comment on the specific case because of privacy concerns. But the agency makes final decisions “on the totality of the evidence,” spokeswoman Laura McGinnis said in an email.

The department has previously defended the sick energy workers program, saying it has provided compensation in nearly 7,000 cases at SRS. Nationally, the government has approved compensation in more than 94,000 cases , the department told The State in December.

Still, the approval rate nationally is about 50 percent, the labor department said. The State and the McClatchy Co., in the 2015 series “Irradiated,’’ reported on troubles sick workers had had with the compensation program.

The energy workers’ compensation program was set up in 2000 to provide benefits after the government acknowledged that working at atomic weapons complexes during the Cold War likely sickened people. It was intended to be friendly toward those who make claims, not adversarial, Tim Bolen said.

Despite the intent of the program, the department had repeatedly declined to approve the Bolens’ request for compensation since the family filed its first claim in 2007, not long after Jerry Bolen’s death. The labor department had said the family couldn’t prove that his death resulted from work at SRS.

The government maintained that position even though Bolen family members had provided a trove of documents to the labor department supporting their position.

Documents submitted by the family included affidavits from construction companies and family members showing that Jerry Bolen worked at SRS, as well as photo identifications and badges showing he was to be tested for radiation exposure. Jerry Bolen worked jobs on the site during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, records show.

Some of the records the family presented showed that Bolen worked for about two years near a tank farm at the Savannah River Site. Tank farms at SRS contain some of the deadliest nuclear waste on the 310-square- mile complex. The family’s lawsuit said Jerry Bolen not only worked near one of the tank farms, but also at another section of SRS where radioactive material is used.

Carolyn Bolen told The State in December that her husband often came home covered in a white powder-like substance from working at SRS.

The U.S. Department of Labor now says there is enough evidence Bolen was sickened at the Department of Energy weapon complex to justify payment under the federal program intended to help ailing nuclear workers.

The labor department based part of its decision on a section of the federal energy employees compensation law that allows workers and families who cannot obtain adequate records from the U.S. Department of Energy to prove their case to be declared eligible for payments.

People with certain types of illnesses who worked at SRS from 1953 to 1972, and who worked at least 250 days on site, are eligible for compensation without providing extensive medical records.

The labor department said Bolen had worked the 250 days during that period, after the government denied for years that he had worked there that long. It also said his illness was at least as likely to have been caused by exposure to toxins at SRS as not.

“The evidence of record establishes that the employee was a covered DOE contractor employee who was diagnosed with the covered illnesses of bladder cancer and metastatic bone cancer, and therefore should be eligible for benefits,’’ the March 5 decision document by labor department hearing representative Mark Langowski said. “Further, it is at least as likely as not that exposure to a toxic substance at a DOE facility was a significant factor in aggravating, contributing to or causing the employee’s death, in part due to bladder cancer and metastatic bone cancer.’’

For Carolyn Bolen and her family, the decision lifts a burden after so much effort to gain compensation following Jerry Bolen’s death.

“It is a weight off my shoulders,’’ Tim Bolen said. “I’m glad my mom now has some security.’’