November 18, 1999
Funds for plant workers supported
By Bill Bartleman
Congress will approve legislation proposing individual benefits of $100,000 for current and former Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers who have certain types of cancer, but not without considerable debate, 1st District U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield predicted.
Details of the compensation plan were released Wednesday by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and introduced in the House.
A key element in the plan is that Paducah workers will not have to prove their cancer was caused by work-related exposure, only that they worked at the plant for at least a year in an area containing radioactive material, Richardson said.
Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary for DOE's Environmental Health and Safety Program, estimated that 200 current and former workers will be immediately eligible for benefits and that an undetermined number would be eligible during the next 20 years.
"This action is long overdue," Richardson said at a news conference in Washington that was linked to Kentucky reporters by telephone. "The department is finally going to stop fighting these workers and instead help them get what they deserve."
He said the compensation is being proposed because Paducah workers were unknowingly exposed to plutonium, neptunium and other highly radioactive elements from the time the plant opened in 1952 until 1976.
Allegations that the exposure caused workers to become ill was raised in two lawsuits filed in Paducah since June. Those cases are seeking millions of dollars in damages from former plant operators.
Richardson said the Justice Department is still reviewing records to determine whether it wants to get involved in one of those suits that alleges former operators filed false documents regarding contamination at the plant.
Michaels said that anyone awarded $100,000 under this compensation program would give up his or her right to sue DOE or any current or former contractor.
"Last September, I traveled to Paducah and apologized for the department for not being forthcoming about possible exposure to plutonium," Richardson said. "Today's announcement gives some weight to that apology."
He said the national security mission of building nuclear weapons placed thousands of men and women in jeopardy, including workers in Paducah. "They helped win the Cold War ... (and) should be honored for their work," he said.
The compensation for the Paducah workers and surviving relatives was included in legislation proposing benefits for workers exposed to beryllium at other plants and to a select group of workers at DOE facilities in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Michaels said as many as 1,000 workers will be eligible for benefits under the beryllium program and about 55 under the Oak Ridge program.
Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, attended the news conference with Richardson and is a co-sponsor of House Resolution 3418, which was introduced late Wednesday.
"This is a significant step forward," Whitfield said. "It is the first time that we've been able to draw up legislation recognizing the government's responsibility to provide assistance to employees who have contracted illnesses resulting from their exposure at the Paducah plant."
In an interview later, he said debate on the bill would begin when Congress returns next year. Although he predicted it would be approved, he said it would spark considerable debate.
Whitfield said a key issue will be the fact that DOE workers in Portsmouth, Ohio, and other facilities involved in building nuclear weapons aren't eligible.
"Today's announcement is a step in the right direction," U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said. "I'm encouraged that DOE is now acknowledging that workers at the Paducah plant deserve to have their health needs assessed."
U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, who has called for an investigation by the General Accounting Office, said the move "jumps the gun a bit. ... Until the (health studies on current and former workers at the plant) are complete, I don't know how we can put a price tag on any settlement. ...
"Fortunately, the measure will come before the Energy Committee, on which I sit. I can promise you that it will not pass the committee until ... I am satisfied that it does right by those workers who have been exposed to contaminants in Paducah."
Michaels said workers at other facilities could be added to the program after investigations are completed next year. He said Paducah was added to the legislation because investigations already have been completed showing that workers were unknowingly exposed to highly radioactive material.
Another part of the debate, Whitfield said, will come from the Department of Defense, which has consistently denied claims filed by former members of the military who were involved in nuclear testing during and after World War II. "They oppose opening the door for claims because of the potential cost," Whitfield said.
Whitfield said the bill would probably be reviewed by at least three House committees, including the Commerce Committee, of which he is a member.
"But even with the debate, I believe we will get this passed. There is a lot of support among those who are familiar with the history of and need for this legislation."
Michaels said the program, including the beryllium workers, will cost an estimated $25 million to $30 million a year for the next 10 years and then be reduced as claims are paid. He said the money would come out of the general fund, and not from any special environmental funds maintained by DOE.
While the Paducah workers will be eligible for a $100,000 lump-sum payment, workers with beryllium-related illnesses will have a choice of receiving lump-sum payments of $100,000 each or reimbursement for medical costs and a portion of their lost wages.
Beryllium is a lightweight metal that has been used in the production of nuclear weapons. It causes chronic beryllium disease, an often fatal lung condition that may not appear in those affected until 10 or more years after exposure.