The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun

Widow helps workers’ cause

By Joe Walker
Associated Press--‘A very good witness’: As Clara Harding testifies, daughter Martha Alls displays an Energy Department award presented to the family honoring her late father.

Paducahan Clara Harding told Congress to take back her gold medal that Energy Secretary Bill Richardson had given her until legislation is passed to help sick nuclear workers like her husband, Joe, who died 20 years ago after suffering from various bizarre maladies.

The incident highlighted Harding's testimony during a congressional hearing Thursday regarding a worker health bill that is languishing in the House of Representatives. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, who sponsored the bill and has been pushing for approval, said the "most dramatic" part of the hearing was Harding's offer to return the award Richardson gave her at a public meeting in Paducah a year ago at which he promised to help sick Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers.

"She makes a very good witness," Whitfield said.

Whitfield said he was encouraged that Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who has heavily questioned the economics of the bill, predicted it will pass before Congress ends this fall. Smith chaired the hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims.

"We may have significant differences over what's in the bill," Whitfield said of his and Smith's views. "But I don't believe he had made that statement before."

The Senate passed the bill resoundingly, but it has been tied up in the House because of Republican leaders' concerns that it is too broad and expensive. But eight lawmakers at the Thursday hearing recommended that the House accept the Senate bill's language "as the best way to adopt something immediately," Whitfield said.

"Those of us who had been advocating this program felt it was very late to be having the hearing if we were actually going to do something this year," he said. "It's frustrating that there are certain people in leadership who still appear not to be supporting the legislation as much as I think they should be."

Richardson told the committee to approve the bill, saying it otherwise might be delayed for years. He gave Harding the gold medal in September 1999 for her late husband's efforts to convince anyone who would listen that plant workers had been exposed to radioactive material.

Joe Harding, 58, died of cancer in 1980. He was employed at the DOE-owned plant from 1952, when the plant opened, until 1971.

‘‘DOE killed my husband,’’ Clara Harding testified.

She said he was proud of his government job, which during parts of the Cold War involved enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons. The plant now enriches uranium for nuclear fuel.

Joe Harding developed sores that wouldn’t heal, mysterious internal damage that led surgeons to remove a large part of his stomach, and sproutings of fingernail- and toenail-like growths on his palms, the bottoms of his feet, his knee caps, knuckles, wrists and elbows.

He was too sick to work by the age of 50, was turned down for disability retirement and fired from his job as a chemical operator, Clara Harding testified.

As part of the workers' compensation case, Joe Harding's body was exhumed in the 1980s and his bones tested by a Canadian lab. Results indicated his radiation level was 1,700 times normal. But his employer, plant manager Union Carbide Corp., challenged the results after some samples were lost.

The claim for benefits eventually was denied. DOE investigated and concluded his illnesses were not work-related.

Harding's body was again exhumed in late 1999 as part of a $10 billion lawsuit alleging that former plant operators poisoned workers and the public, and covered it up, to keep production paramount. Carbide and other past plant contractors have denied the allegations.

Whitfield said Harding and other witnesses — DOE plant workers and relatives from five states — gave compelling testimony.

"I think that moved a lot of people," he said. "It certainly had an impact on everyone there."

Whitfield said no one who testified disputed his contention that the government should compensate DOE contractor workers who have or will suffer specific work-related illnesses.

The Senate-passed program would give lifetime medical benefits and a minimum of $200,000 apiece to nuclear weapons plant workers who became sick from exposure to radiation, silica or beryllium. The Clinton administration wants to offer $100,000 for each sick worker.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.