From staff, wire reports
WASHINGTON--The compensation plan for some sick workers at nuclear weapons plants, including the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, was approved by the House Wednesday as part of the military authorization bill.
The plan would give some workers with job-related illnesses or their surviving family members $150,000 in cash payments and government-paid health care. It was approved 382-31 and sent to the Senate, where swift approval was expected.
‘‘I have to pinch myself to believe it,’’ said Clara Harding of Paducah, who said her husband, Joe Harding, died from exposure at the Paducah plant. ‘‘I’ve been waiting for this a long time.’’
Harding testified before Congress on the need for the compensation plan.
She and other heirs of deceased weapons-plant workers would be eligible for a lump sum of $150,000 if the fatal illness was caused by exposure to health-robbing levels of radiation, beryllium or silica.
It’s uncertain when the money will be available.
U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, said he was pleased the legislation is headed for final approval, although he was disappointed it wasn't as generous as a bill approved earlier in the Senate.
Once signed into law, the bill gives the executive branch until March 15 to come up with an alternative compensation plan, and Congress would have until July 31 to pass it. If that doesn’t happen, the $150,000 plan will take effect.
Workers who preferred to take their chances in front of a jury would be given 30 months to choose between a lawsuit and government compensation. They would not be allowed to proceed in court after taking the government money.
The compensation program was added to the 2001 Defense Authorization Act after a more generous Senate-passed package was pared to make the cost low enough to get House Republican leaders to allow it to proceed to a vote.
During House debate, no one spoke against compensation.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the program would cost taxpayers $1.4 billion over 10 years for benefits to sick employees of vendors and contractors of the Energy Department.
Another $235 million would be spent on medical care for sick uranium miners, and $225 million on cash benefits to uranium miners.
Until last year, the government had denied a direct link between work exposure in the nuclear weapons complex and later illnesses.
About 600,000 people worked in the weapons industry during the Cold War, of which some 3,000 to 4,000 are expected to be eligible for compensation. About 1,500 uranium miners have been compensated under that compensation program, though advocates have estimated that 10,000 other miners might be eligible for enhanced benefits in the new compensation bill.