The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, July 26, 2002

Bunning: DOE wanted to kill screening fund
A DOE spokesman says the senator misunderstood about funding for the cancer program. But a watchdog group says another official told Bunning the opposite.

By Bill Bartleman

What must not be lost in the debate over continuing the early lung cancer testing program for workers and former workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is that it is saving lives, said Leon Owens, president of the production workers union at the plant.

U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning and others say the U.S. Department of Energy was on the verge of abolishing the program by not requesting enough funds to keep it going next year. However, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell used his influence as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee to put the money back into the budget bill that is moving through Congress.

About 1,800 current and former workers in Paducah have participated in the health screening program, said Owens, president of Paper Allied-Industrial Chemical Energy Workers Local 5-550. He's aware of at least three who have been diagnosed with early signs of lung cancer.

"They owe their lives to the testing program," he said. "I talked with one woman, a former worker, who had been screened, and a nodule was found. She went to the Anderson Cancer Clinic in Houston and had surgery. They got it early enough that she didn't even require chemotherapy or radiation."

Without the early testing, it is likely the cancer would not have been detected until symptoms began to appear. At that stage, the survival rate is less than 30 percent. Detected early, the survival rate exceeds 70 percent.

Bunning wants to know why DOE requested only $1 million when $5.2 million is needed. "I am dismayed that the federal government, which misled workers for nearly 40 years about their exposures to compounds associated with lung cancer risk, is now trying to end a program designed to help DOE workers survive lung cancer," Bunning said.

He sent a letter to Beverly Cook, assistant DOE secretary for environment, safety and health, asking for an explanation to "recent statements by certain DOE officials suggesting that DOE intends to abolish" the program. Last year Cook replaced Dr. David Michaels, who was instrumental in drafting the legislation that implemented the program.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $5.2 million for the program Wednesday, which was $4 million more than recommended by DOE. The program provides a mobile testing unit that rotates between DOE facilities in Paducah; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and Portsmouth, Ohio.

Joe Davis, DOE's Washington spokesman, said there's a misunderstanding, because DOE never intended to abolish or cut the program. "We fully support it," he said. "We put the amount of money in the budget that those who run it initially asked for." The budget request was submitted to Congress several months ago.

That amount was about $1 million, which he said would have been added to $3.25 million that was appropriated but not spent this year.

After members of Congress recently said $5.2 million was needed, "We didn't oppose that," Davis said. He also added that Bunning's comment that some in DOE want to abolish the program "is not true."

However, Richard Miller, a policy analyst for the Government Accountability Project, a Washington watchdog group, said Cook told Bunning she wanted to abolish the program because of concerns the early cancer testing exposes workers to a high level of radiation.

"Mr. Davis may not have all of the facts he needs to understand how the budget was put together," Miller said. "DOE may not have wanted to abolish the program, but Bev Cook wanted to abolish it. If they ask for only $1 million and $5 million is needed to operate it, you can only assume that someone was trying to kill it."

Bunning discounted concern about radiation exposure during testing, saying it is extremely low and does not place the worker in jeopardy.

Owens said most workers agree the benefit of early testing is worth the low exposure. "The program is totally voluntary and the risk is explained to the worker," Owens said. "To my knowledge, we have had no complaints at all from anyone who had the testing."

In his letter to Cook, Bunning urged DOE to support full funding.

"I urge the DOE to revisit its decision to eliminate this vital program," he said. "We must do all we can to protect the health of these workers who have served our country. The federal government initially deceived these Americans and placed them in harm's way. Now we should do our utmost to reduce the harm by continuing to provide them with DOE's early lung cancer detection program."

The bill will be considered by the full Senate after the August recess, a spokesman for McConnell said. The bill would then go to the House for a vote.