The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Thursday, April 19, 2001

Labor to direct sick workers’ benefits

By Bill Bartleman

The U.S. Department of Labor will take charge of a new compensation program for nuclear weapons workers, including those at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, but will not meet the July 31 deadline for being ready to accept applications for benefits.

In a telphone interview, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said her recently abandoned efforts to transfer the program to the Department of Justice or some other federal agency were prompted by a desire to help workers.

Although she faced sharp criticism from plant workers and some members of Congress for wanting to transfer the program, she said her motivation was to help workers by searching for an agency that could meet the July 31 deadline.

"From the beginning, my only concern was for the workers," said Chao, wife of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville. "They have been wronged by their government in their service to the country, and they deserve to be taken care of."

David Fuller, president of the Paducah plant atomic workers' union, said Chao phoned him Wednesday to tell him the Labor Department would oversee the program. She pledged to visit the plant within three weeks, although a specific time was not set, Fuller said.

"I look forward to her visit because that will give me the chance to talk to her about having people serve on administrative committees to consider claims, and somebody to run the program in Washington," Fuller said.

The Department of Energy admitted in 1999 that some workers in Paducah and other nuclear weapons facilities were exposed to radiation and hazardous chemicals that could have affected their health. In response, Congress passed a compensation program expected to cost about $1.6 billion over the next 10 years. As many as 10,000 workers, former workers and their surviving families could be eligible.

Payment of medical benefits and a lump-sum compensation benefit of $150,000 are provided. Chao said that no matter when applications are received and approved, the payment of medical benefits would be retroactive to July 31.

Chao said she proposed transferring the program after she was advised by her staff that the department would be unable to meet some deadlines imposed by Congress — specifically having all of the procedures and rules in place so applications could be accepted starting July 31.

In the final analysis, Chao said, the Department of Labor may not be the ideal custodian, but continued controversy would have produced additional delays.

Chao would not speculate on a start date, but another labor official said it was originally thought the work would take at least six more months.

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, said he is disappointed in the need to extend the deadline, but said "we'll be reasonable in negotiating a new deadline." He reiterated that the workers, former workers and their families "have been waiting a long, long time."

McConnell said the decision to keep the program with the Department of Labor "is an important step toward achieving the goal we fought so hard for last fall — full and fair compensation for the workers at the Paducah plant who were made sick by years of radiation exposure."

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Southgate, said he was "extremely pleased" the issue had been resolved. "When Congress authorized this program last year, it was clearly our intent that the Department of Labor should run the program," Bunning said. "I have full confidence that they can and will efficiently manage this crucial program.”