News Watchman

Nuke comp low in numbers

By VAN ROSE

NW Staff

Wednesday, February 13, 2002

In July 2001, the Department of Labor began processing claims through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) - a program designed to reimburse sick nuclear workers at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant and other facilities throughout the nation.

But very few plant workers in the southern Ohio region have been compensated for the illnesses they contracted through their employment, causing some to question whether the program is fulfilling its intended purpose. Of the 800 to 900 claims processed through the Energy Employees Compensation Center, in Portsmouth, since July, only about 53 have been awarded, explained EEOICPA project manager Dan Charles. The low percentage of approved claims may be due to the number of Portsmouth plant workers who fall under a "special exposure cohort." Those suffering from specific types of cancers are covered by the program as part of the cohort and are not required to prove that their sickness was caused by employment at the plant.

"The only thing that is really working is the special exposure cohort," said Charles. "Those claims are being processed very quickly. Others are pending." Workers unable to take advantage of the EEOICPA are turning to regular state workers' compensation, considered by some to be inadequate in comparison to the federal program. But state claims are still being filed, and there is potential for the process to become much easier in the future.

A medical panel review of claimants through the Office of Worker Advocacy could significantly improve the compensation process, but is being held up at the state level. Only after a memo of understanding (MOU) is signed will review guidelines be established, opening the door for other workers' compensation. "The federal government says unsafe conditions at the plants, as the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, in Piketon, caused cancers and other illnesses in nuclear workers," told Vina Colley, a former electrician at the Portsmouth plant. "They said that our records are incomplete and only want to pay for cancers, leaving out the soups of toxic poison. Chemical poisoning is the greatest effect from working at the gaseous diffusion plants."

According to Colley, she was laid off in 1987 due to chemical exposure and was later diagnosed with bronchitis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, organic brain syndrome and other illnesses. She received some compensation through a state claim, but does not currently qualify for immediate benefits under the EEOICPA. Colley is $75,000 in debt for medication and expenses. Like Colley, former plant worker James Gardner is exempt from federal benefits. He was forced to retire in 1995 after 18 years of employment and now suffers from pharynx cancer, which called for removal of his larynx, or voice box.

"To me, we have been completely misled to believe that we would be receiving compensation and now I am wondering if anyone will be getting compensation for having worked at the Portsmouth plant," explained Gardner in letters sent to several Ohio legislators. "I am now forced to seek legal help (which I cannot afford) to see if some type of compensation can be obtained. This will most probably take years (years that I do not have), but maybe my children can benefit from some type of compensation."

Improvements have been made in the federal program, like the inclusion of a wider range of cancers and the allowance of victims' children and even grandchildren to become beneficiaries under certain conditions.

Mark Lewis, director of the Workers' Health Protection Program, considers the ups and downs of the program as a "bittersweet situation." He and others working to process claims are learning more all the time.

He has helped some 25 workers receive payment but is aware of approximately 60 or so that are still waiting. "Some have gotten it. Some haven't," said Lewis concerning compensation. "We have to wait. We're learning as we go."