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  • Plant workers might get compensation

    Budget officials say Piketon plan could set bad precedent

    Saturday, October 30, 1999

    By Darrel Rowland and Jonathan Riskind
    Dispatch Public Affairs Reporters

    Hailed as the unsung heroes of the Cold War, workers at southern Ohio's uranium-enrichment plant now might be caught in a bureaucratic no man's land.

    If the Energy Department gets its way, they might receive about $75,000 each and workers' compensation if a "plausible'' link can be established between workplace hazards and ensuing health problems such as cancer. The agency is about to begin a study to determine whether such a connection can be made and what role the government played in exposing workers to radiation at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

    But budget officials in the Clinton administration are balking at such a package, which was developed for other federal workers exposed to radiation, said an angry Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville.

    The congressman described a "frustrating'' meeting yesterday afternoon with Jack Lew, director of the Office of Budget and Management, and other administration officials who raised concerns about paying the Piketon, Ohio, workers.

    The dispute erupted as David Michaels, assistant energy secretary for environment, safety and health, toured the enrichment facility yesterday.

    He will hold a three-hour public meeting -- starting at 9 a.m. today in the Piketon Comfort Inn's conference center -- to hear concerns about past working conditions at the plant.

    Strickland plans to attend along with Sens. Mike DeWine and George V. Voinovich, both R-Ohio. The 3,700-acre enrichment facility, built after World War II, initially supplied high-grade uranium for nuclear weapons.

    It now provides material for nuclear-power plants.

    In recent weeks The Dispatch has recounted numerous stories from current and former employees who suffered health problems after working -- often unknowingly -- with radioactive materials. Newly unveiled memos show workers were often kept in the dark about the dangers.

    "If people develop a cancer that has a plausibility of being work-related, the burden of proof shifts away from the worker,'' Michaels said.

    The Energy Department wants to reverse its long-standing practice of automatically denying all worker claims because of the difficulty of scientifically and medically proving a causal link between cancer and workplace conditions, he said.

    "There's been too much hiding and too much cover-up for too long.''

    Energy Secretary Bill Richardson "has said that if we made people sick at . . . Piketon, they should be taken care of,'' Michaels said.

    But Strickland said he has been unable to get the White House to commit to the type of program Michaels described.

    Budget officials contended that any number of federal workers in dangerous jobs -- including the Blue Angels pilots killed in a crash this week -- might seek compensation, Strickland said.

    If the administration sticks to that position, "There's going to be hell to pay,'' he vowed. "I think there's going to need to be an explosion of political pressure put on these folks.''

    Lew could not be reached for comment.

    A White House spokeswoman said the budget office favors spending money to investigate past conditions at Piketon.

    "We are sympathetic to the workers at Piketon,'' she said.

    "Therefore, we are ensuring that the Department of Energy has adequate funds for research to investigate and determine what happened, how and why.''

    Besides an OK from Clinton, any compensation plan would need approval by Congress.

    DeWine and Voinovich are turning up the heat, too.

    DeWine accused the Clinton administration of dragging its feet.

    "If the government was at fault, they need to compensate those affected by their mistakes,'' he said in remarks prepared for today's meeting.

    The health and safety of employees should be top priority, he said.

    "I have heard far too many stories from former and current workers who tell me they never knew of the risks to which they were being exposed.

    "This is just plain wrong.''

    In a letter yesterday to Clinton, Voinovich said the administration is not adequately addressing the issue.

    He urged the president to "make it a priority to act aggressively in identifying these sites where the federal government is responsible for any hazardous materials and to develop a strategic plan for cleaning up these locations.''

    Yesterday morning, Michaels presented the possibility of payments to Piketon workers as part of his agency's overall desire to compensate workers exposed to radiation and other harmful substances in the workplace.

    He conceded such compensation would be expensive, though he added the total would be "millions, not billions.''

    "This is one of the prices we paid in winning the Cold War,'' he said. "These are men and women who put their lives on the line.''

    By the afternoon, however, he was hedging.

    "I'm not sure it'll be $75,000, but it'll be a set amount,'' he said of possible payments to workers.

    The $75,000 matches the federal payments to Energy and Defense Department workers involved in atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert at the height of the Cold War.

    Another agency, possibly the U.S. Department of Labor, would determine who is worthy of compensation, Michaels said.


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch