Congressman Emanuel Cleaver's KC office director, Geoff Jolley, was supposed to find a date in May for Cleaver to host a town hall meeting for sick workers at the Bannister Federal Complex. For a week, though, he didn't return calls.
Maurice Copeland, the ex-KC Plant worker whose connections made this feature story possible, wasn't going to sit around and wait. He and other activists from KC Nukeswatch visited the office of County Executive Mike Sanders to see if he'd be more responsive. Calvin Williford, Sanders' communications chief, offered to let the group use the second floor legislative meeting room at the Jackson County Courthouse. Last night, that room was packed with people for a lively, but very sad, town hall.
"I got an e-mail from Cleaver's office yesterday," Copeland announced as the town hall got underway. "Guess what? He's gonna hold a town hall for y'all!" A wave of cynical laughter rose up from the assembled crowd.
One by one, people made their way to the microphone to share heartbreaking stories of illnesses that they link to contamination at the Bannister site.
A young woman, holding her 2-year-old boy, spoke on behalf of her father, a KC Plant worker who'd never been sick a day in his life, until he died of brain cancer at just 49 years old. An elderly widow talked about the loss of her husband of 55 years -- he'd been very secretive about the details of his work at the weapons plant -- to a very rare cancer that his doctors thought was due to radiation exposure.
The maddening, bureaucratic process of filing federal compensation claims was a recurring theme. A woman who'd worked at the plant from '77 to '91 said that she'd undergone three brain surgeries, lost a kidney and had only 40 percent breathing capacity in her lungs. She started to cry as she remembered being told that she came this close to qualifying for compensation from the government. "It's an everyday struggle," she said. "I threw all the paperwork away and told my husband that if anything ever came out of it, I'd be dead by then."
A woman whose husband worked at the KC Plant's lab from 1968 to 1972 and died of a rare cancer told the audience, "What can I say? He was a good man. You all are good people. I turned in all my documents to the Department of Labor but they were all denied, denied, denied. ...Good luck, all of you, and God bless."
One of the most fiery speakers was a man named Guy Beebe, who'd worked in an office leased on the Bannister site by the Marine Corps between 1987 and 1990. "Why are there people still going to work in a building in a facility that's been designated a Superfund site?" he asked.
Unfortunately, no one knows that answer or the answers to most of the questions posed last night. But if the presence of staff from Rep. Cleaver's office, Sen. Kit Bond's office and Sen. Claire McCaskill's office means anything, the truth may yet come out. Hopefully most of these former workers and their families will still be around to hear it.