Political clout helps local workers
Department of Energy officials didn't want to reverse a decades-old policy that allowed contractors to contest claims filed by nuclear industry workers exposed to toxic substances. But after months of foot-dragging, DOE did an about-face, deciding to advise its contractors to pay claims approved by a special panel of doctors.
The compensation policy change is a significant victory for sick nuclear workers and their families, including workers exposed to toxic chemicals at Paducah's uranium enrichment plant.
And the president's signature on the anti-terrorism bill means DOE will take a big step closer to meeting the requirements of 1998 legislation that was supposed to ensure the elimination of a health and safety hazard at the Paducah and Portsmouth plants, create jobs for workers displaced by the privatization of the U.S. nuclear fuel industry and give a boost to efforts to commercially exploit the reuse of depleted uranium.
In each case, Kentucky's congressional delegation, led by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, played the key role in turning the tide in Washington for Paducah and the uranium enrichment workers.
Moreover, McConnell, First District U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield and U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning have prevailed on several tough congressional fights related to the gaseous diffusion plant, with the result that sick workers and their families are receiving just compensation from the federal government and the long-delayed Paducah plant cleanup is finally making progress.
Paducah and western Kentucky have not received this much favorable attention in Washington since Alben Barkley held the nation's second highest office.
It's clear that McConnell's position in the GOP Senate leadership has made a difference for Paducah on plant-related issues.
Kentucky's senior senator is respected, knowledgeable and skilled at side-stepping opposition. Equally as important, he works hard to deliver for western Kentucky, a traditional Democratic bastion that has been moving the GOP's way in federal elections.
As a member of the House, Whitfield naturally does not wield as much clout as McConnell. But Whitfield has been a tireless advocate for uranium workers, winning respect from labor leaders who generally are not inclined to think well of Republicans.
Together McConnell and Whitfield battled to overcome strong opposition to the generous compensation plan for uranium workers exposed to radiation or silica and beryllium.
The legislation seemed destined to die in the House, but McConnell and Whitfield were able to rescue it. Now the program, which is overseen by McConnell's wife, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, is dispensing medical benefits and cash payments to hundreds of workers.
With Bunning's help, McConnell and Whitfield also have kept consistent pressure on DOE over the slow pace of the cleanup at the Paducah site.
Paducah has done surprisingly well in the allocation of cleanup funding — thanks largely to McConnell, who uses his position on House-Senate conference committees to protect the interests of his western Kentucky constituents.
Whitfield pushed hard for the DOE policy changes that will help plant workers exposed to toxic chemicals. He deserves credit for cutting through the bureaucratic thickets and spotlighting the issues of fairness and worker health.
McConnell, Whitfield and Bunning are Republicans, but their work on behalf of the plant doesn't have a partisan character. In delivering outstanding constituent service, they've also cooperated with Democrats and performed a service for all ailing nuclear workers.
Gov. Patton has helped on the plant cleanup, but he obviously cannot directly affect legislation in Congress. This buck stops with the members of the congressional delegation; they have not shirked their duty to sick and displaced workers in western Kentucky.
However, it hasn't escaped our attention that western Kentucky began faring better in Washington at the same time two-party competition developed in the region. Political battlegrounds rarely are taken for granted by either party.
In any event, the plant workers and their families are obtaining needed and justified benefits from the federal government, which has admitted failing to deal honestly with them through much of the plant's history.
A large measure of thanks for this new attitude in Washington must go to McConnell, Whitfield and Bunning.