The DOE aide wasn't asked to remain at his political appointment, but says he will be active in working out the payments.
By Bill Bartleman firstname.lastname@example.org
At noon today, Michaels ends his two-year tenure as the U.S. Department of Energy's assistant energy secretary for environment, safety and health. He was one of the main forces behind the successful effort to convince the Clinton administration and Congress to approve the compensation program that includes workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and the Honeywell Plant in Metropolis, Ill.
Michaels is leaving the DOE position because it is a political appointment that expired with the end of the Clinton presidency. Some members of Congress had hoped the Bush administration would ask him to stay on, at least until Aug. 1, when the program is to be implemented.
"I have not been asked to stay on, but I will stay involved from the outside," Michaels said Friday in a telephone interview from Washington as he was cleaning out his desk. "I'll be involved either as a consultant or on advisory committees."
Michaels said he will stay in Washington and join the faculty of the George Washington School of Public Health. Before joining DOE, he was professor of community health at the City University of New York Medical School for eight years.
Michaels expressed confidence that the worker compensation program will have the same high priority with the Bush administration as it had with the Clinton administration.
"The program received such widespread bipartisan support from members of Congress and communities all around the country that I am confident it will be a priority with the new administration," he said.
Although he said career employees who have worked under him will still be around and continue their work to implement the program, he added that there may be delays as new Bush appointees take over and get acclimated.
The Department of Labor will administer the program and process claims. Eligible workers will receive either a lump sum payment of $150,000 or projected future lost wages. Officials say they should begin taking applications in August and that the first checks would be issued by the end of the year.
Over the next five years, the program is expected to cost $1.6 billion and pay benefits to as many as 10,000 workers throughout the country.
Michaels visited Paducah five times, beginning in August 1999 when a lawsuit was filed by current and former plant workers who claimed past environmental practices at the plant risked the lives of workers. The suit contended that companies hired to operate the uranium enrichment plant for DOE lied about environmental conditions in an effort to earn millions of dollars in operating bonuses.
After investigations indicated that past management practices did expose some workers to contaminated conditions, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson made compensating current and former workers and their families a high priority, Michaels said.
He said Richardson was sincere in his commitment that the federal government should take responsibility for its past mistakes. In the fall of 1999, Richardson came to Paducah and acknowledged publicly for the first time that the government was negligent in its past operations of the plant here and nuclear weapons production plants in other states.
"Secretary Richardson made a number of commitments to the workers and made sure they were fulfilled," Michaels said. He also said that the benefit program was approved in a relatively short period of time, just 18 months after his first visit to Paducah.
Michaels said he worked during his tenure to be open, honest and responsive to the public and to current and former plant workers. "That's what government is supposed to do," he said.