June 19, 2000 12:00 PM

Swept up in the optimism of America’s mid-century economic boom, Joe Harding was elated in 1952 to learn that Union Carbide was hiring workers for a new plant in Paducah, Ky., just north of his Jackson, Tenn., home. The 3,425-acre facility, owned by the government and managed by the chemical company, transformed uranium into material for use in nuclear weapons. For a 31-year-old married father of two who had slogged through a series of sales jobs, the prospect of laboring in the forefront of the atomic age seemed irresistible. “It sounded,” he said years later, “like a big and fantastic thing.”

After reporting for work on Oct. 15, 1952, Harding spent two decades at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant—much of the time helping mix uranium powder with other chemicals. But his illusions of glory were quickly dispelled. Within two years he began to suffer agonizing stomach pains and chronic nausea. “They started calling him ‘Joe Erp’ because he vomited so much,” recalls his wife, Clara, 77. In time 85 percent of his stomach had to be removed. He would also suffer a variety of respiratory problems and develop a horrifying condition that left his body covered with calcium growths resembling fingernails. Convinced his ailments were caused by his work with radioactive materials, Harding became known at the plant as a vocal complainer and was shifted from department to department. Finally in 1971, according to Clara, Union Carbide offered him total disability, based on an on-the-job leg injury, and he agreed to leave the company. Harding took the offer and went home—only to learn later that his claim had been denied, which eliminated his eligibility for a disability pension and medical coverage.

On March 1, 1980, down to just 70 lbs. and racked with gastrointestinal cancer, Harding died in Clara’s arms at age 58. “I was trying to hold him in his wheelchair,” she says, “and he went limp.” In all the years since, Clara has insisted that her husband was unfairly denied his disability compensation and that he died as a direct result of his work. Joe had even alerted government officials to the radiation problem, she says, but to no avail. In a 1979 letter to Kentucky Gov. Julian M. Carroll, Harding wrote that plant supervisors had assured employees they would never be exposed to more radiation than is given off by the luminous dial of a wristwatch.

Apparently that was not the case. The U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the nation’s nuclear plants and foots nearly all the costs incurred by its contractors, admitted recently that workers in Paducah and elsewhere may possibly have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation during the Cold War era, when nuclear weapons production soared. More specifically, the government conceded that it had not been forthcoming about possible exposure to plutonium, a highly toxic material that may have contaminated some of the uranium sent to Paducah. “The department has acknowledged that we’ve made people sick, and that’s a historic turnaround,” explains Dr. David Michaels, DOE’s assistant secretary for the environment, safety and health. “DOE and its predecessor agencies have spent more than 50 years fighting workers. They thought, I believe, that if they acknowledged that people were getting sick dealing with probably the most hazardous chemicals ever used by man, it would get in the way of their mission.”

The acknowledgment also comes on the heels of two local lawsuits. In one, filed last June against Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin—the contractors who took over the Paducah plant after Union Carbide bowed out in 1984—two current employees and one retired worker claim the contractors defrauded the government by falsely claiming that the plant environment and safety were exemplary. In a separate $10 billion class-action claim filed last year, 10,000 workers and their families—Clara Harding included—allege that they were unknowingly exposed to radioactive materials tracked from the plant into their homes.

The government’s shift on the issue was signaled last September, when Energy Secretary Bill Richardson spoke at Paducah and awarded Clara the DOE’s Gold Medal. “Clara Harding is the human face of the men and women who helped fight the Cold War,” said Richardson. “She symbolizes the government’s pitiful inaction.” The Energy Secretary, considered a possible running mate with Al Gore in this year’s presidential election, has spearheaded proposed legislation calling for $520 million to compensate sick workers and survivors of those deceased. The package would award stricken employees full medical coverage and compensation for wages lost to sickness. Employees forced to retire because of illness and survivors of employees who died from radiation-induced cancers would receive lump-sum payments of $100,000.

“It made me ashamed that my government would treat people the way it treated them,” says Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), a vocal backer of the package, which has strong bipartisan support. According to DOE’s Michaels, Clara Harding might qualify for the $100,000 “and might be eligible for more money, depending on what her husband’s radiation exposure was and what his lost wages were.”

Not surprisingly, Clara views such promises skeptically. She looks back on decades of dashed hopes when her husband was a lone voice in the pursuit of justice for Paducah workers. Indeed he was widely viewed by many families whose financial survival depended on the plant as a kind of outcast because of the letters he wrote and the speeches he made at antinuclear rallies claiming employees were routinely exposed to potentially lethal levels of radiation. Even now Clara, who has waged a 17-year legal battle to gain the disability pension she felt her husband deserved, encounters harsh critics. “I go to church with a lot of people who work at the plant,” she says. “They think I’m just awful.” But her daughter Martha, 58, sees this as a time of vindication. “It’s like, ‘Okay, Daddy was right,’ ” she says. “Other workers have told me, ‘Now we know your dad wasn’t crazy.’ ”

The Hardings’ life odyssey began on a decidedly positive note when they met as teenagers in Bolivar, Tenn., in 1939. Though he was out with another girl, Clara recalls, “Joe asked me, ‘Could I have a date Saturday night?’ I said, ‘I’ll think about it.’ ” She smiles and adds, “I thought he was the best-looking man I’d ever seen, but I couldn’t let him know that.” Afterward Clara accepted the date, and a year later she and Joe married. The next year the Hardings moved to Washington, D.C., where Joe was a traffic inspector and streetcar operator, and Clara gave birth to Martha in 1941 and her sister Clara Jo four years later. The Hardings moved to Virginia, then back to Tennessee, as Joe worked as a salesman. Then came 1952 and Paducah.

Ironically, Joe was almost rejected by Union Carbide. Though he had been valedictorian of his high school class and had finished a year of college, he was told he wasn’t qualified because he lacked a degree. But he aced an aptitude exam and began two months of training. One day, Clara remembers, “I saw a rash on his ankles, and he told me, ‘I guess it’s that stuff I’m wading in every day. It’s chloride.’ Joe, who recorded his story on tape in the year before his death, said he was ordered not to divulge details of his job. “We were impressed with the fact that it was all very secret work,” he said, “You just never mention what you are doing and you never mention radiation to anyone.”

The long-term effects of radiation were unknown to most people in the 1950s. Looking back in 1979, though, Harding wrote that he breathed a gas in the plant that was so heavy “you could see the haze in the air when you looked at a ceiling light and you could taste it coated on your teeth.” Six months after he started at Paducah, Harding’s catalog of ills began with a severe knee injury suffered when he fell while loading a truck. It would bother him the rest of his life. More harrowing was the deterioration of his digestive system. Eventually, says Martha, “he had to have little bitty meals, and then he would just go throw up.” Finally in April 1961, a surgeon removed most of his stomach, his duodenum and two feet of his small intestine. Still, Harding remained optimistic. “He always gave the appearance of being okay,” remembers Martha, “saying, ‘I’m fine.’ ”

He was not, of course. As the ’60s wore on, he saw his body enveloped by growths and his lungs riddled with tiny perforations. When Harding was let go by Union Carbide in February 1971, it touched off a long, anguished battle—one that, after 30 years, has admittedly grown somewhat murky. Clara maintains that a local Union Carbide official agreed to give Joe roughly $900 a month as a permanent disability pension. But seven months later, Harding received a letter from the company’s main office refusing any disability compensation. Union Carbide has declined to comment on the matter, deferring to the DOE, which has been asked by Clara’s attorneys to find the termination agreement Joe signed.

With no help from Union Carbide, Joe started a modest business repairing heating and air-conditioning units, while Clara continued her longtime work as a dental assistant. In 1976 the Hardings suffered another crushing blow when their daughter Clara Jo died at 31 while awaiting surgery for a brain aneurysm. Her parents visited her in the hospital the day of her death. “She was just doing great,” a tearful Clara remembers. “Then we got a call from the hospital saying she was in grave danger. We got there, and she was gone.”

Joe’s end was slower. In January 1980 he was admitted to Methodist Hospital in Memphis, under the care of Dr. Lee who later testified that Joe’s metastasized cancer was most likely caused “by environmental factors.” Harding died just a week after returning home.

Afterward Clara filed with the state workers compensation board for widow’s benefits from Union Carbide. But despite exhumation findings that showed Harding’s remains filled with potent doses of uranium, the judge ruled against her, saying she had not filed in time. While an appeal was pending in the Kentucky supreme court, Union Carbide offered Clara a settlement of $12,000, which she accepted.

Immediately after Secretary Richardson’s Paducah visit last fall, Clara’s attorneys contacted DOE officials, requesting payment of $500,000—Joe’s estimate of lost wages and medical and disability benefits. In February the agency declined Clara’s request and offered to refer the case to a third-party mediator. Obviously she would welcome the cash. Joe’s medical bills, among other hardships, forced Clara to sell their home in 1986 and move to a small duplex, where she supplements her Social Security with part-time babysitting. But she insists the fight has always been more about justice than money. “I hope people won’t have to suffer as long as we had to suffer to get something done,” says Clara. “That’s what Joe wanted. He wanted to help other people.”

Richard Jerome

Mary Green in Paducah

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