The Paducah Sun

December 23, 1999

DOE budget to fund worker tests

By Joe Walker
Copyright 1999, The Paducah Sun

A senior Department of Energy official says the agency has juggled its budget to find $7 million for worker health and related studies at Paducah and two other uranium enrichment plants.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the money includes $3 million for medical testing of current and former uranium workers, and the rest will study the historical movement of harmful materials at the plants.

"For this fiscal year, ... by reallocating money that DOE already has, we've set aside money for health studies," the official said. "The amount is $3 million to get started."

The official asked not to be identified because the development had not been approved for public release. The Sun learned of the move Wednesday, two weeks after the $7 million had been pulled from the budget approved by Congress in November. The money is needed to expand the program to include 6,000 current and former workers annually.

Congress told DOE to change priorities and use other funds to pay for the expansion of testing. After starting last year, it had only enough funds to test about 400 former workers yearly at each plant - Paducah; Portsmouth, Ohio, and a closed facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The money had been insufficient to test 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 is to test current workers for early signs of lung cancer.

"The secretary committed to provide the funding, but it took us a while to decide how to cover these costs after the budget amendment didn't go through," the official said. "It wasn't something we decided to do this week."

Funding was removed from the energy appropriations bill at the last minute. Federal lawmakers representing the Paducah area did not learn of the move until several days after the budget was approved.

In the budget, Congress told DOE to "reprioritize" funding for the health studies and seek more funds for fiscal year 2001 to fund the expanded program fully. The senior official said that in talks with the Office of Management and Budget, the department has identified funding in the 2001 budget for the expansion.

The official said the juggling of funds was coincidental to a letter sent Wednesday by U.S. Sens. Jim Bunning and Mitch McConnell imploring the OMB to set aside more than $162 million for environmental cleanup, worker health testing and job preservation efforts at the Paducah plant. The senators wrote OMB Director Jacob Lew, who is developing the Clinton administration's fiscal 2001 budget, strongly urging Lew to include the funding in his list of priorities.

Funding to expand health testing for current and former workers was one of four points stressed by McConnell and Bunning. Richardson promised to "find the money for the work," the letter said. "Unfortunately, this funding has not materialized."

The senators attached a report included in the Energy and Water Bill signed by Clinton. The report said Congress provided nearly $49 million for health studies of enrichment workers at the three plants and urged DOE to seek ample funds in 2001 to test current and former workers not yet screened.

"We hope we can count on the cooperation of this administration to clean up the Department of Energy's environmental legacy and provide health screenings for the workers," McConnell said in a news release.

The letter outlined three other "imperative" budget matters concerning the plant:

--At least $60 million to ensure conversion of 57,000 cylinders of depleted uranium hexafluoride. The senators reminded Lew of Richardson's recent promise to provide $24 million toward converting the toxic, mildly radioactive material to something safer. They also said Congress fully funded Clinton's request for $5 million in fiscal 2000 for the project.

"While we are pleased to provide this initial down payment, we realize that significantly more funding must be appropriated before a single ounce of waste will be rendered safe," the letter said.

--$100 million for DOE to meet plant cleanup needs as identified by state environmental protection officials. It is apparent that DOE "has failed to identify all sites of contamination, let alone achieve any significant cleanup, despite spending $400 million in the past 10 years," the senators wrote.

--At least $2 million to help the Paducah Area Community Reuse Organization attract new business opportunities for the region and develop job options for displaced plant workers. The DOE-funded group received $6 million of its $8 million grant request this year.

The senators said PACRO needs more business recruitment money to offset image problems stemming from inadequate oversight and poor radiation control at the plant. The plant also faces "potential job losses" from decreased production because of a glut of enriched uranium imported from Russia as part of nuclear disarmament, the senators' letter said.