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Cancer survivor battles U.S. government

Jackie Brown says her illnesses were caused by working at a now-closed nuclear weapons plant.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 15, 2007


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When Jackie Brown developed cancer of the uterus at age 29, she was forced to have a hysterectomy. Sixteen years later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy.

Brown blames her illnesses on 17 years as an employee for U.S. government contractors who operated a now-closed Pinellas County nuclear weapons plant.

The government disagrees with the St. Petersburg woman and has repeatedly rejected her claims for compensation.

Brown is among more than 1,000 people who have requested compensation for illnesses they say were caused by working at the plant at Bryan Dairy and Belcher roads operated initially by General Electric and Lockheed Martin and later by Martin Marietta.

Brown and other former workers are basing their claims on the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, passed in 2001 to compensate nuclear weapons workers who became ill as a result of exposure to radiation, beryllium or silica on the job.

Recently, she and 11 others spoke of their frustrations to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's staff in Orlando, saying that the approval process for financial compensation is inconsistent and biased.

"Sen. Nelson has asked the CDC to put together a working group to examine the claims process involving the former Pinellas plant workers," said Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for Nelson's office.

"We're certainly sympathetic to the plight of the workers and would like to help them any way we can," he said.

Brown, 49, remembers being ecstatic when she landed the job at the GE facility.

"It was a very well-paying job with excellent benefits, but little did we know what it was doing to our bodies," she said.

She worked as a stenographer, administrative assistant, scheduling and planning clerk, and, last, as a paralegal. In her application for compensation, Brown said that during her 17 years at the plant, she was exposed to "chemically contaminated weapon parts containing radiation, plutonium and tritium while performing inventory and day-to-day handling of those parts."

In the years since, she said, she has seen former co-workers become ill.

"What would happen is that you would run into people at the oncologist's office, or you see them in a store somewhere and they're sickly looking," she said.

One of her managers died of pancreatic cancer and an engineer from her office is ill, she said.

Now a paralegal for the Pinellas County Attorney's Office, she accuses the Department of Labor of being biased in its award of claims.

"There are over 35-plus claims from other African-Americans from the same work site with various illness, cancers and illness related deaths that have been denied, but whites are being approved at an alarmingly greater rate," she wrote in a 2006 letter to the department.

"They have even been approved for breast cancer. In addition, they were employed at the plant a shorter period than I was. I am positive that my breast cancer was directly caused by exposure in that plant. My precancerous uterus was the beginning of my compromised health."

In an interview recently, Brown said she has no risk factors for breast cancer, does not carry the gene and has no history of cancer in her family, facts confirmed by her oncologist, Dr. Richard Knipe of Gulfcoast Oncology Associates.

"I do have three or four patients from Lockheed," Knipe said. "It's certainly interesting that of these patients I have, that they are fairly young with pretty aggressive cancer. I wouldn't want to attribute any cause and effect because I don't have access to that data."

Brown heads a breast cancer support group for black women, is on the boards of the American Cancer Society and Gulfcoast Oncology Foundation, and is on the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute's community advisory board.

She has two adult children, Sharneka, 25, and D.J., 22.

She recalled how upset they were when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. Her daughter was away at college. Her son was a high school senior.

"All he could think was his mother was going to die. But we finally got through it. I told him I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to fight this thing," she said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

[Last modified December 14, 2007, 21:12:10]


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