Congress reaches an 11th-hour compromise. The deal still must be signed by both houses and Clinton.
By Joe Walker email@example.com
Clarise McDaniel, 81, was overjoyed when the news came Thursday evening that Congress, after months of dickering, had reached an agreement to compensate families of workers like her late husband, James, who got sick working at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
"I think it's wonderful," she said of the 11th-hour compromise by House/Senate negotiators. "We deserve it."
Horribly burned in a plant explosion in 1962, James McDaniel underwent many plastic surgeries, tried and failed to return to work, and died of widespread digestive tract cancer in May 1981 just five weeks after he was diagnosed. He was 62.
The catastrophe destroyed the family's well-being, Clarise McDaniel said, forcing her to quit her secretarial job to care for her husband. Like many plant employees of the Cold War era, he was sworn to secrecy about his life at the plant, she said.
"I think people need to be aware of what they put those men through and not telling them they were exposed," she said, adding that the Kentucky delegation was a great help in securing the benefits. "I have worked as hard as any person who lost a family member."
The baseline package would provide workers sickened by radiation exposure at the Paducah plant, or surviving spouses, with at least a $150,000 lump-sum payment, plus future medical costs. The same benefits would be available to uranium enrichment workers at Portsmouth, Ohio, and Oak Ridge, Tenn., who have a "significant advantage" over all other DOE and contract workers nationwide, said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville.
"The good news for the Paducah, Portsmouth and Oak Ridge workers is the burden of proof is on the government to prove these employees did not contract illnesses while working at the plants," he said. "At all other DOE plants, the proof is on employees to show they contracted illnesses."
To qualify, Paducah workers must have been at the plant at least a year and have one of a list of cancers, including leukemias, that can be radiation-induced, Whitfield said.
The benefits package also applies to workers made ill from the deadly metal beryllium. Workers at other nuclear weapons-related plants nationwide are eligible for the same benefits, but with different standards.
One of those apparently is Allied Chemical Co. in Metropolis, Ill., which is involved in uranium hexafluoride conversion, refining and processing.
Whitfield said the Clinton administration must, by March 15, propose a benefits package and identify whether the Department of Labor or Department of Justice will administer the program. Many had argued that a previous bill, offered by the administration, posed a conflict of interest because DOE was the proposed administrator. Whitfield said the Department of Labor should handle the program because of its experience with worker compensation.
The package awaits approval by both houses of Congress and then Clinton. If a new benefits package is not enacted by Aug. 1, then a baseline compensation package will take effect. The new package would give each employee the option of a two-thirds salary replacement at the time he was disabled, plus medical benefits.
Whitfield said he hopes to introduce the proposed package for Clinton next week
David Fuller, president of the plant atomic workers' union, said the compromise is good news, but he wants Clinton to raise the base amount to at least $200,000.
"I also think, personally, that before they (lawmakers) go home, they ought to go ahead and finish the job this year," he said.
Whitfield, who introduced the House version of the bill, said it could be another nine to 10 months before qualifying workers actually begin receiving compensation.
"This wasn't everything we wanted, but this is the first time the government has ever stepped up to the plate and said we're responsible for what happened to the people at the Paducah plant," Whitfield said.
Reaching the compromise "was the most difficult legislative process I've been involved in," he said. "I feel very good about the final results, but we have a little bit more work to do."
Legislation passed the Senate by a wide margin earlier this year, but talks broke down when House Republican leaders — notably House Speaker Dennis Hastert — had big questions about cost and other factors.
On Thursday, congressional aides said the expense was estimated at almost $1 billion during the first five years. Hastert praised the deal, saying, "It is time that the federal government takes responsibility for the health of these workers, who have done so much in service to their nation."
After negotiations broke off last week, Whitfield and Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning pressed both houses for action before Congress adjourns later this month.
"When it looked like the deal was dead, Ed, Jim and I walked into the speaker's office to take one last shot," said McConnell. "And today, I am proud to say we won."
Congress also provided $250 million to establish the compensation program, and $25 million for administrative activities to ensure that the administration can implement the program immediately. In future years, the compensation program will be paid out of the General Fund and not subject to the annual appropriations process.
Bunning said he shared with Hastert stories of Paducah workers who were unwittingly exposed and are now gravely ill.
"Just as we owe a debt we can never repay to all the military men and women who have fought on behalf of our country, we are obligated to take care of those who sacrificed their own health to work in our nuclear weapons plants," Bunning said. "While we can never give these workers back their health, I am glad that we have begun the process of getting them some help."
McConnell called the action "a victory" for Paducah plant workers sickened from radiation and hazardous chemicals. "This legislation guarantees that the government will never turn its back on these workers again," he said.
Retiree Jim Chesnut, a former Paducah plant union president who has helped workers with health screenings, said the compensation package should be greatly expanded. Employees sickened by exposure to heavy metal, for example, should be included, as should plant neighbors who have plant-related property contamination and suspicious illnesses, he said.
"The bill itself will be good for certain workers, but I don't think it will be a huge number," Chesnut said. "Most of the people who will collect compensation are (survivors of workers) already deceased."
On the Net:
Information on the bill, H.R. 4205 is at http://thomas.loc.gov
National Economic Council report on compensation issues: http://www.eh.doe.gov/benefits
DOE report on uranium miners: http://tis-nt.eh.doe. gov/ohre/roadmap/uranium/index.html
Justice Department’s Radiation Exposure Compensation Program: http://www.usdoj. gov/civil/torts/const/reca/index. htm
The Associated Press contributed to this report.