The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Sunday, August 12, 2001

Government delivers on promises

Two years ago, the credibility of the federal government on issues related to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant was near zero.

Plant workers and Paducah area residents began losing faith in the government's promises after more than a decade of delays in starting the cleanup of contamination at the plant site. Then, what little faith remained was nearly destroyed by revelations that, during the Cold War, workers at the uranium enrichment facility were exposed without their knowledge to highly radioactive substances such as plutonium.

A sense of betrayal began to replace the once-common view of the federal government as a beneficent provider of high-quality jobs. To make matters worse, federal officials, after finally admitting the abuse of trust that occurred at the Paducah plant and other nuclear installations, promised prompt remedial action but failed to deliver it.

But in the past year the federal government has turned several of its key promises to the people of Paducah into real and meaningful action. In the process, the federal bureaucracy and our elected officials in Washington have done much to restore the government's credibility with the people of our region.

In this space we have often criticized government inaction on workers' health concerns and the contaminated mess surrounding the gaseous diffusion plant.

Fairness now demands that we acknowledge the good work done by our representatives and the federal officials in charge of workers' compensation and several cleanup initiatives.

The turnaround started with the removal of "drum mountain," the most visible sign of federal officials' indifference to Paducah's environmental problems.

This huge pile of contaminated drums was leveled in a matter of weeks by cleanup workers. Credit for the operation must go to Kentucky's congressional delegation, which pressed the Department of Energy for action, and to Gov. Patton, who supported the delegation's efforts. Local leaders also urged the government to follow through on its promises.

The cleanup is far from over it may take another decade or more to complete but federal officials have proven they can do more than study chemical contamination.

On the human issue of workers' health, the government has demonstrated both compassion and efficiency, developing and implementing in less than five months a generous program to compensate sick nuclear workers and their families.

At an appearance in Paducah last week to deliver the compensation program's first check to Clara Harding, the widow of a former plant worker who died of cancer, U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao was entirely justified in saying, "Today, we also celebrate a bit of redemption for the government that once turned its back on these workers, and has now turned around to offer a helping hand."

That helping hand was extended in large part because of the work of Chao's husband, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who used his considerable influence on Capitol Hill to steer the compensation program through to passage, despite powerful opposition.

McConnell ensured that workers in Paducah and several other communities would not have to fight through bureaucratic red tape to receive benefits. These workers are part of a "special cohort" that has to clear only a few hurdles to establish eligibility for the $150,000 lump-sum payments and coverage of future medical costs.

In addition to McConnell, First District Congressman Ed Whitfield worked tirelessly for the compensation program, and U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning provided important assistance.

On the administrative side, Chao has shown great energy and managerial competence. In a period of about four months she has put in place a program that eventually will distribute more than $2 billion in benefits to sick workers and their families.

The attention Chao has lavished on Paducah plant workers and their families during several recent visits has made a positive impression, too. However, the critical point is that she has come to deliver aid, not just sound bites.

As a result, the government has indeed found a "bit of redemption" for its callous treatment of workers who helped the nation win the Cold War.

But federal officials have also raised expectations much higher, and there's still a long way to go before the government's debt to this community is paid in full.