The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, March 02, 2002

Sick workers' aid plan gets D-
A group told the Department of Labor that some illnesses of nuclear workers aren't covered, and the lump sum is small.

By Joe Walker

An activist group says a new program to help sick nuclear workers is too narrow and doesn't provide adequate compensation.

The group, headed by Vina Colley, a former uranium enrichment worker at Piketon, Ohio, has compiled a "report card" giving the program a D- grade. Colley delivered the information Thursday to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao in Washington, D.C.

Among other things, the report card claims last year's Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Plant Act:

Does not cover enough illnesses, such as those from exposure to heavy metals, fluorides and other chemicals. The law provides compensation for various cancers related to radiation exposure, and for beryllium- and silica-related diseases.

Provides an inadequate lump sum of $150,000, particularly when compared with the terrorist victims' fund. The law also affords medical benefits.

Has inequities because some cancer victims' claims have been denied or delayed by the Department of Labor's final adjudication board. "DOL appears to be finding loopholes to deny claims due to semantics, poor records and the discounting of expert diagnosis," which hurts credibility.

Has other problems, notably troublesome cases that require reconstructing job exposures or fall under state workers' compensation programs.

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, who helped push the legislation, declined comment Friday on the group's claims. Shelby Hallmark, head of worker compensation programs for the U.S. Department of Labor, said the programs are bound by congressional rules.

"Obviously, those are decisions Congress made for us," he said. "I think it's widely known there are lots of other toxic materials that were used in the nuclear complex, but Congress chose not to cover them."

Instead, proposed Department of Energy regulations address conditions not covered by federal compensation. If a doctors' panel finds that such a condition arose from plant employment, DOE will not oppose a state workers' compensation claim and in some instances will tell its contractors to do the same, Hallmark said.

He said the Department of Labor has reached final decisions on 1,875 claims, out of which 121 have been denied. So far, to expedite the program, the cases have been those easiest to decide, which means subsequent claims may be more contestable, Hallmark said.

"We try to do the very best we can, and people who don't receive the benefits are obviously not happy," he said. "No cases have been taken to court, but that is one avenue people have when we deny a case."

Don Throgmorton, a former 18-year employee of the Paducah uranium enrichment plant, said he is soliciting signatures on a petition to support broadening federal law. He can be reached at 554-6638.

Although Throgmorton is disabled and has filed a Department of Labor claim, conflicting results of several beryllium-disease tests cloud his chances of collecting. He said he has early-stage emphysema and a spot on one lung, which are signs of the disease.

Throgmorton said he is concerned about many borderline workers like himself and many others exposed to substances not reflected by the list of compensated diseases.

"I think if they can send money overseas to guys like Arafat, they can take care of guys like us," he said. "They want you to play dead and roll over, and I'm not going to do that. I'm sick and tired of it."