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Workers still waiting for health screening |
Wednesday, December 08, 1999
By Jonathan Riskind
WASHINGTON -- They promised.
But federal officials haven't kept their pledge to pay for expanded health screening of current and former uranium-enrichment workers in southern Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The federal budget, recently passed, included $7 million for the programs until Congress removed it in last-minute maneuvering.
Some Republicans in Congress say the Energy Department could pay for the program by reallocating money, but that hasn't happened.
Outraged workers, lawmakers and screening-program administrators say that, as a result, thousands of people exposed to dangerous materials aren't getting medical checkups that could save their lives.
At the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant alone, more than 300 former and current employees are awaiting screening, said Mark Lewis, a worker at the Piketon, Ohio, facility and coordinator of the Worker Health Protection Program there.
Until the program is expanded, only former employees are eligible, he noted.
"The money's not there so far,'' Lewis said. "I'll believe it when it's there.''
One former Piketon employee underwent screening in October to find out what the spots on his lungs mean. He said all the plant's workers should have such an opportunity.
"That's a pretty hazardous place to work,'' said Jesse Skinner, 69, of Waverly, Ohio, who performed mechanical maintenance. "I know, because I worked in all the buildings.''
The Clinton administration unveiled a proposal Sept. 16 to provide $5.8 million for expanded health checks of workers at the Piketon plant, a sister facility in Paducah, Ky., and a former uranium-enrichment plant in Tennessee. An additional$1.2 million was for identifying and assessing the health and safety risks former and current workers have faced at those plants.
The money would have covered checkups, including tests for early detection of lung cancer, for nearly 6,000 former and current workers.
Currently, $1 million is available, enough to cover about 1,200 former workers -- and that screening doesn't include early lung-cancer detection.
About 2,000 Piketon workers, 1,800 Paducah workers and 15,000 living former workers -- about 5,000 from Piketon -- are eligible for the program.
The money reportedly was taken out of the Department of Energy's $17 billion annual budget in partial retaliation for resistance to House GOP attempts to increase congressional oversight of the department.
A spokesman for Rep. Ron Packard, R-Calif., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's Energy and Water Subcommittee, said $49 million already was in the bill for medical monitoring of Energy Department workers nationwide; Packard felt that was sufficient and asked the agency to "reallocate and prioritize'' the cash.
In the final bill, the Energy Department was directed to "reprogram'' existing funds to pay for the expanded screening program.
"My impression is it's kind of like a standoff,'' said Rep. Ted Strickland, D- Lucasville. "It's a damn shame.''
Strickland, whose district includes the Piketon plant, and other lawmakers have threatened to prevent the Energy Department from shifting around any other money until the health-screening money is made available.
Department of Energy spokesman Jeff Sherwood said, "Obtaining funding for this program is a priority of Secretary (Bill) Richardson. We are working on getting that funding right now.''
Richardson said in September that the increased money was needed in light of revelations that unwitting workers were exposed to plutonium and other deadly radioactive elements because as part of a Cold War-era uranium-recycling program.
Dr. Steven Markowitz, an occupational disease specialist directing the screening program, said one reason it's so important to conduct comprehensive health screenings is that the workers as a group are relatively young. Illnesses or potential illnesses such as lung cancer could be detected, monitored or treated in ways that could save lives, he said.
Markowitz noted that billions of dollars are spent each year to clean up soil and water at the gaseous-diffusion sites.
"We've developed a plan. We're all set to go. We've gotten promises from Democrats and Republicans and we see billions of dollars flying around,'' he said. "All the people at Piketon are asking is to be treated at least as well as dirt.''
Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch