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Kansas cancer survivors fight for compensation for radiation exposure decades ago

When they were in their 20s, Sharon and Robert Houser worked at the Jayhawk Works at the time when employees were unknowingly dosed with radiation from Spencer Chemical Co.’s effort to break into the nuclear fuel production industry. Both are cancer survivors.
When they were in their 20s, Sharon and Robert Houser worked at the Jayhawk Works at the time when employees were unknowingly dosed with radiation from Spencer Chemical Co.’s effort to break into the nuclear fuel production industry. Both are cancer survivors. The Wichita Eagle

Robert and Sharon Houser are part of a “Special Exposure Cohort.”

It’s an honor they’d just as soon have done without.

What it means is that it may be marginally easier for them to get compensation from the government for the cancers they’ve suffered, which could be related to radiation exposure from when they worked at the Spencer Chemical Co.’s Jayhawk Works just north of Galena.

They were there when the company made a brief foray into processing uranium for the fledgling nuclear power industry in the 1950s and 1960s.

Since then, Sharon Houser, 73, has had a mastectomy for breast cancer and a hysterectomy for cervical cancer. Doctors got all the cancer both times, but she said she’s just waiting for the next outbreak.

Robert Houser, 75, has had two active skin cancers and more than 100 pre-cancerous lesions removed from his body. He said he’ll probably lose some more skin in a few weeks when he goes to the dermatologist for his three-month checkup.

The Special Exposure Cohort designation means in essence that so few records exist from 55 to 60 years ago that it’s impossible to tell exactly what went on in the nuclear materials division at the Jayhawk Works – and what the potential radiation exposure was for workers there and in the rest of the sprawling industrial-chemical complex.

More than 100 former workers have filed claims in connection with Jayhawk Works, according to Dan Lord, a claims consultant who has worked with residents in southeast Kansas.

A 2008 government investigation uncovered processes that produced radioactive dust that workers would have inadvertently breathed in and eaten – and buildings given a soap-and-water cleanup and repurposed after Spencer sold off its nuclear operations.

In the petition that sparked the investigation, workers alleged that they ate in the same room where they changed their dusty work clothes and that unfiltered ventilation hoods sucked the dust out of their buildings to the outside air.

Both the Housers worked at the Jayhawk Works when they were in their 20s.

She was a cashier in the on-site credit union, and he was a utility man who ranged across departments, filling in for absences and performing general maintenance chores around the plant.

Neither of the Housers worked in the nuclear division – they didn’t even know it was there.

“We were never told they were making anything bad,” said Sharon Houser. “Everybody who worked there came in on Fridays and would hand me their contaminated checks.”

Though he was never directly involved in processing nuclear material, Robert Houser said he may have been part of the crew that cleaned up the contaminated buildings. While memories are dimmed by more than 50 years, he does remember the crew being given fire hoses and soap and told to wash down a building inside and out.

The building was part of the specialty chemicals division, which took over some of the factory space vacated when the nuclear operation was sold and moved out, government records show.

“I just worked on maintenance labor – we didn’t know what we were doing,” he said. “We just did what we were told. I didn’t know anything about any contamination until maybe four or five years later.”

Uranium works

The plant where they worked was a munitions factory during World War II. After the war, the 1,600-acre site was transferred to Spencer, according to government records.

In its new civilian life, the plant produced ammonia, nitric acid, methanol, polyethylene plastic, nylon and similar products.

According to government licensing records, Spencer entered the nuclear age when it started enriching uranium with a small pilot project in 1957.

Two years later, the company’s founder, Kenneth Spencer, announced a major expansion of the nuclear effort and built a plant to process about 50 tons a year of uranium dioxide, the highly radioactive compound used in nuclear reactor fuel rods.

According to its in-house employee publication, Spencer News, the company had developed a process for continuous enrichment of uranium, a more efficient method than was in general use at the time.

Copies of the Spencer News going back to the 1940s are kept in the Special Collections Department at the Pittsburg State University Axe Library. While they’re mostly chronicles of safety awards and company parties, they do offer some insight into the nuclear program.

The headline article in the March 1959 edition of Spencer News boasted that the expansion would allow the Jayhawk Works to “become a major processor of uranium dioxide and to establish a position from which the company can continue to serve the growing nuclear industry.”

That optimism was short-lived.

By the end of 1961, the company had stopped handling nuclear material and by 1962 had sold its processing equipment and patent rights to Kerr-McGee Corp., an Oklahoma-based energy giant with extensive operations in oil and uranium, according to government records.

Kerr-McGee moved the equipment out of the Jayhawk Works to its refinery in Cushing, Okla.

One of the buildings used for uranium enrichment was dismantled, burned and buried, while other buildings where nuclear materials had been handled were washed down with soap and water and put back into general use, government records said.

Government investigators who tried to reconstruct what exactly had gone on in the nuclear division at the Jayhawk Works were stymied by the lack of records. Only a handful of memos remain attesting to the way nuclear materials were handled and how employees’ exposure to radiation was monitored, documents show.

In 2008, investigators from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – reported that there was no way to credibly estimate how much radiation any particular worker had been exposed to.

NIOSH did conclude that because of deficiencies found in the way materials were handled, it was likely that workers outside the nuclear operation were also exposed to dangerous levels of radioactive materials.

I was just a kid going for a hamburger. God knows what I got with it.

Carol Ann Robb, Pittsburg librarian

Even outside the former Jayhawk Works employees, there are those who wonder if they might have been exposed.

The company was a pillar of the communities around it and had a clubhouse and recreation area that were frequently used by the neighbors.

Pittsburg librarian Carol Ann Robb said her father, who ran the local Social Security office, was a member of Kiwanis and that the Jayhawk Works hosted the service club’s summer picnics.

“I was just a kid going for a hamburger,” she said. “God knows what I got with it.”

Kenneth Spencer and his wife, Helen, are legends of Kansas philanthropy, so much so that last year Topeka author Ken Crockett wrote “Kenneth & Helen Spencer of Kansas: Champions of Culture and Commerce in the Sunflower State.”

The book hails their millions of dollars of support for arts and sciences, especially in the Kansas City area and at the University of Kansas.

1 1/2 years of red tape

In 2000, Congress established the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, a government fund set up to pay Cold War-era atomic workers who were exposed to carcinogenic radiation in the name of national security.

It was an acknowledgment that the government had allowed and in some cases encouraged companies to cut corners in what was then a feverish effort to stay ahead of other countries in the nuclear race.

Jayhawk Works employees were designated as a Special Exposure Cohort by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2008. That status extends to workers throughout the plant who were there at least 250 days from 1956 through 1961, not just those who worked in the uranium enrichment shop.

Theoretically, that means former Jayhawk workers like the Housers don’t have to directly prove they were exposed to radiation to qualify for compensation. They only have to prove they’ve had one of 22 types of cancer linked to radiation exposure.

In practice, the Housers have had their applications in more than a year and a half and have yet to see any return other than more forms to fill out.

Robert Houser’s claim seems to be a little farther along than his wife’s. He was first diagnosed with skin cancer in 1992 when he went to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota with a sick friend and decided to get a checkup there himself.

Government evaluators considering his claim have sent him a letter detailing 98 times he may have been dosed with radiation at the Jayhawk Works.

Does he think he’ll ever see any money?

“That’s a big question mark, partner,” he said. “I don’t know whether it is or isn’t going to happen.”

“All I know we’ve just got a lot of paperwork,” added his wife.

Sharon Houser said her claim has been more complicated than her husband’s.

What was the Spencer Employees Federal Credit Union was bought out by another company that kept the same employee identification numbers. That led claims processors to believe she’d worked for the successor company.

“I guess they burned every record Spencer ever had,” she said.

She had to track down former Jayhawk workers who could confirm she’d actually worked in the plant during the time in question.

It wasn’t an easy task more than 50 years after the fact.

“There’s very few who worked out there when we did who are still around,” she said. “In my department, there were five of us. Now there’s two. The rest of them died of cancer.”

She was able to gather affidavits from 10 former Jayhawk workers who remembered her being there.

One of them was Jack Williams, who lives in nearby Riverton. He worked at the plant from 1955 to 1966, when he changed careers, moved to Olathe, and became a truck driver.

I know they told us not to eat the fish we caught in the Spring River.

Jack Williams, former Jayhawk Works employee

Like the Housers, Williams didn’t know exactly where in the plant the nuclear materials were being handled.

He did handle a lot of shipping, which was one area where the NIOSH report said records are inadequate.

“It couldn’t have been very far away, especially when I worked in specialty chemicals,” Williams said.

He doesn’t remember many details of his time at Spencer, but vaguely recalls being checked periodically for radiation.

“I know they told us not to eat the fish we caught in the Spring River,” which runs by the plant, he said.

Now 79, Williams has stomach cancer that hasn’t responded well to radiation and chemotherapy treatment. Every couple of weeks, he goes in to have fluid drained from the tumor.

“Up until a year ago, I could get around pretty good,” he said. “I’ve just got no energy now.

“I was a pretty husky guy. I weighed 218. Now I’m down to 140-something.”

He signed a form applying for compensation, but doesn’t know the status of his claim.

“I’m 79 turning 80,” he said. “I’ll probably never see it.”

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

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