December 9, 1999
DOE hunts funds for worker tests
By Bill Bartleman
U.S. Department of Energy officials say they intend to keep their promise to expand health screening of current and former workers at gaseous diffusion plants in Paducah, Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Portsmouth, Ohio.
However, they don't know whether the expanded testing will begin early next year or in 2001. The $7 million needed to expand the program to include 6,000 current and former workers annually was pulled from the budget approved by Congress last month. Instead, Congress told DOE to change priorities and use other funds to pay for it.
The testing program began last year and currently includes enough funds to test only about 400 former workers annually at each plant. It does not include funds for current workers.
In September, after news stories and lawsuits alleged that workers at the Paducah plant may have been exposed to cancer-causing radioactive materials, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson proposed expanding the program to test more former workers and begin testing current workers. One of the main goals of the expanded program would be to test current workers for early signs of lung cancer.
The money to pay for it was removed from the energy appropriations bill at the last minute. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield said Whitfield didn't know the funding was removed until several days after the budget was approved.
"It was one of those last-minute things," said Anthony Hulen, Whitfield's press secretary.
"We thought that, because of the national attention on the problem, the funding wouldn't be taken out," Hulen said, adding he didn't have any inside information on why it was removed. "I wasn't behind that closed door," he said.
According to the budget, Congress said DOE "should reprioritize the funding for health effects studies to address the health concerns of current and former workers for the purpose of early identification of work-related diseases at the gaseous diffusion plants." It also instructed DOE to ask for additional funds for fiscal year 2001 to fully fund the expanded program.
Jeff Sherwood, a DOE spokesman in Washington, said: "Obtaining funding for this program is still a priority of Secretary Richardson. We are working on getting the funding right now."
It is still possible DOE will ask Congress for a special $7 million appropriation, and Hulen said supporters of the expanded testing program have been encouraging DOE to do that.
"We had hoped they would have asked for that before Congress adjourned for the year last month," Hulen said. "But we were disappointed that it never came. Now it will have to wait until next year."
If DOE ends up having to reallocate its funds, as Congress has recommended, Hulen said Whitfield would be willing to work with DOE on that task.
The budget includes almost $49 million for worker testing at all DOE facilities. DOE officials say that if they use $7 million to expand testing at the gaseous diffusion plants, it would reduce funding for worker testing at the other facilities.
The budget also said the screening program should include new technology that identifies early signs of cancer.
Dr. Steve Markowitz, an occupational disease specialist who is in charge of the screening program at the gaseous diffusion plants, said it is important to do the screening of the young, current workers. He said early detection of lung cancer for them will prevent major health programs in the future that could become fatal.