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  • Gephardt to fight for Ohio's uranium-enrichment workers

  • The government must take care of all those possibly exposed to plutonium, he says.

    Sunday, September 19, 1999

    By Darrel Rowland
    Dispatch Public Affairs Editor

    The top Democrat in the U.S. House says he'll fight to make sure that uranium-enrichment workers at a southern Ohio plant are treated the same as employees at a Kentucky facility who might get government compensation for medical problems.

    "What's fair is fair,'' said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. "You just can't take care of one group of people and not others.''

    Gephardt was in Columbus last night as the keynote speaker for the Ohio Democratic Party's annual state dinner at the Athenaeum. The event, attended by about 1,000, was expected to generate more than $200,000 for the state party.

    Earlier in the day he attended a $15-per-person fund-raiser for Rep. Ted Strickland, whose district contains the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon.

    Gephardt praised Strickland for standing up for workers at the sprawling facility, which formerly supplied material for nuclear weapons but now provides fuel for nuclear reactors.

    The Dispatch revealed last week that Piketon workers apparently handled highly radioactive plutonium during the Cold War era, a revelation that had been denied by the federal government. Minute amounts of plutonium can cause cancer.

    Similar revelations surfaced earlier this summer at Piketon's sister plant in Paducah, Ky. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson went to Paducah last week to apologize on behalf of the federal government and to outline a pilot program to test Paducah workers -- many of whom reportedly have developed cancer -- and possibly compensate them if their ailments can be linked to work.

    But Piketon and a now-closed uranium enrichment facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., were left out of the pilot program, a move that immediately was protested by Strickland and, a day later, by both Ohio senators, Republicans Mike DeWine and George V. Voinovich.

    Richardson has expressed assurance that Piketon and Oak Ridge workers will be covered as well.

    Gephardt said to do otherwise wouldn't pass muster in Congress, which must approve funding.

    He brushed aside concerns, reportedly voiced within the Clinton administration, that helping uranium-enrichment workers might obligate the government to aid employees at all defense and energy plants across the country that handle radioactive material. If those workers have been adversely affected by the job, they should be helped too, Gephardt said.

    On other topics, the 23-year congressional veteran said he wasn't surprised fellow Missouri native Bill Bradley is doing well in several opinion polls in matchups with Vice President Al Gore in the Democratic presidential race.

    Gephardt said the campaign will be "long and tough'' but that Gore is the better candidate and will prevail.

    The minority leader said congressional Democratic lawmakers are willing to compromise with Republicans on a proposed tax cut, but said the GOP plan gives too much to affluent taxpayers. Gephardt called the 2000 elections, in which Democrats are given decent odds of recapturing control of the House, crucial.

    "We're at a crossroads in this country,'' he said.

    If Democrats regain control, they will address a patients bill of rights guaranteeing that doctors -- not health-care corporations -- make treatment decisions; laws to help family farmers; universal health care; and education, such as President Clinton's proposals to add teachers and computers in classrooms, Gephardt said.

    He said Democrats deserve to control the House of Representatives because the party is representative of America. A Democratic majority would mean the first black chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in U.S. history.

    "We're the party of diversity,'' he said. "We're the party that best represents the American people.''

    Honored at the Ohio Democrats' annual fete were Supreme Court Justice Alice Robie Resnick, winner of the Gertrude W. Donahey Award, named after the first woman elected to statewide executive office in Ohio; Sen. C.J. Prentiss of Cleveland, the Myrl Shoemaker Award for outstanding service as a legislator; Christopher Wager, a junior at Upper Arlington High School, the party's volunteer of the year; and Timothy Barnhart, chairman of the Ross County Democratic Party, as Ohio Democrat of the year.


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch