The Pducah Sun

September 18, 1999

Richardson says government will carry burden of proof

By Bill Bartleman
The Paducah Sun

Approximately 200 current and former workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant are expected to share $20 million as compensation for illnesses caused by exposure to radioactive materials, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said.

At a news conference Friday as he neared the end of a two-day visit to Paducah, Richardson promised that it will be easy for workers with illnesses and families of workers who died from illnesses to collect the benefits.

"We are going to make every effort to make filing claims as simple and unbureaucratic as possible, which is going to be difficult for the government," he said. "The burden of proof will not be on the worker. The burden of proof will be on the government and plant to prove that the worker was not harmed or contaminated."

Before a compensation plan is finalized, Richardson said, Congress will have to approve a change in the DOE budget. He said a bill will be proposed in a couple of weeks to transfer the $20 million from another DOE program.

"I think that we'll be able to get that through," he said.

The amount of each benefit will be based on lost wages and medical costs. Also, he said, widows of those who died from illnesses will receive cash payment. He said the amount hasn't been decided.

The plant opened in 1952 and enriches uranium for use as a nuclear fuel. Its original mission was to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons. That production ended about nine years ago when the Cold War ended.

"We want to be fair to these workers who were so important to the Cold War," he said. "We weren't always straight with them in the past."

Richardson departed at noon Friday after a morning of meetings with workers, former workers, a plant advisory board, DOE employees and managers of the production facilities at the plant. On Thursday night, he held a town meeting at which about 200 people attended.

"I encouraged everyone to be open and candid with the investigations that are taking place," Richardson said. "I reiterated that the Paducah plant is going to continue operating. I am not closing it down."

The priorities will be to accelerate the cleanup schedule by providing an additional $14 million for the fiscal year that begins next month. The current budget proposes spending about $40 million. He said "significantly more money will be proposed" for cleanup in Paducah in 2001.

Richardson also said he has approved a request for assigning two more DOE employees to Paducah. That is on top of the two new staff members that he announced earlier in the week for the Paducah office.

The first two will be transferred from Oak Ridge, Tenn., and will be involved in oversight of safety procedures by contract workers and plant workers. The other two will be added by the end of the year, a DOE source said.

In discussing personnel, Richardson had high praise for Jimmie Hodges, the DOE site manager who announced this week that he will retire Oct. 1. Hodges said he is leaving to pursue employment options in the private sector.

Richardson said Hodges was not forced to retire because of the controversy surrounding past environmental management at the plant.

"He has been an invaluable part of the DOE team and has done a great job," Richardson said. "His leaving is his own decision, not mine. He is leaving for personal reasons. He has made his decision to retire, but if he wants to change his mind he can stay."

Richardson said if Hodges does not stay, he will appoint a woman as the new site manager. "We need more women in the Department of Energy," he said, adding that he does't know who will be named.

Hodges said in an interview later that "I've made my decision" and he doesn't intend to change his mind.