News Watchman

Sunday, July 28
News Watchman
Piketon, Ohio

Claimants Urged to Sign Waviers

"Historically, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) denied atomic weapons' plant workers were sickened by the nuclear production process. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is still denying sick and dying nuclear worker's meritorious illness claims." These lines are the first in a Wednesday press release from the National Nuclear Workers for Justice (NNWJ) on "The Rise and Collapse of the Deficient 'Energy Employees' Occupational Illness and Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) of 2000.'"

NNWJ strongly comes against the EEOICPA - a program awarding $150,000 in compensation to sick nuclear workers and their family members - stating that when it was first created in 2000, the government was to take the blame for nationwide illness, but the DOL now "forces claimants, who are threatened with denial of their claims for perceived non-compliance, to assume all 'burden of proof' responsibility."

Vina Colley, a former electrician at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, in Piketon, contributed to the release, which gives the two-year history of the compensation program and lists many problems existing between administrator DOL and energy workers fighting for remuneration.

"We would like to have the opportunity to broaden the qualifying sections of the EEOICPA to help the 'veterans' who the President declared were 'courageous' American heroes," said Colley, who claims to suffer from a destroyed immune system and other respiratory problems due to radiation and chemical exposure at the plant. These illnesses are not currently covered under the program. She has filed her share of claims through the EEOICPA, which covers only work-related cancers. Consequently, she has been denied twice. The former Portsmouth worker was recently urged by DOL to sign a form waiving all rights to compensation, but refused to do so. Colley and others are warning current and former workers not to sign the waiver.

"I am aware that some claimants have signed the DOL 'gag order' waiver without being represented by counsel," she explained. "The claimants still do not understand why they were told they must sign this waiver to be able to proceed to another level of escalation." As a result of her refusal, the dismissal of Colley's claims was reversed, and a deposition has been scheduled for July 31 in Portsmouth at the DOE/DOL Resource Center. In order to testify, by law, she must have legal counsel. Since Colley has no attorney at this time, she is making no plans to attend. Unqualified adjudicators assigned by DOL have taken the role of "judge, jury and executioner" as to what claims will be accepted, according to Gai Oglesbee, an advocate for about 150 sick workers and a former employee of the Hanford nuclear site, in Washington state.

"These novice caseworkers don't even know where Hanford is," she said. "They don't even have any credentials." Thousands of Hanford workers are sick, but only one has been awarded compensation. Coverage of a greater spectrum of illnesses besides just cancer from beryllium disease, radiation or chronic silicosis is needed, many are saying. Oglesbee claims there is somewhat of an urgency by DOL adjudicators to handle claims by July 31, and that has caused some questions to be raised.

"We don't know what it is," said Oglesbee of the supposed deadline. "We think something is coming down on July 31." "Overall, I would say that on the DOL federal claims side, they're doing a a fairly good job," said Sam Ray, a former Portsmouth plant worker and representative of the Workers' Health Protection Program, which operates out of the PACE Local 5-689 Union Hall and assists workers in claim processing. But the Labor Department is far from perfect, explained Ray. "They do have a few people that are making medical interpretations and deletions they're not qualified to make. They need to probably tighten up a bit. I think there is room for improvement."