The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, September 14, 2002

Sick worker study's credibility questioned
Selection of a DOE contractor to determine exposure levels has drawn concerns, because the exposures occurred at Energy Department plants.

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

Some labor leaders and watchdog groups are upset that a Department of Energy contractor is determining exposure levels for people who claim they were sickened by working at DOE plants.

They note a potential conflict of interest in the hiring of Oak Ridge Associated Universities — a consortium that has done extensive exposure-reconstruction work for the Energy Department — to do similar studies for sick nuclear employees seeking state and federal compensation.

Under a new federal law, those findings will go to a physicians' panel created to determine the legitimacy of claims.

Besides current and former workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, most of the thousands of potentially affected people are from eight states with large DOE facilities. Claims could total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Having a current or past DOE contractor do the work erodes credibility, because the exposures occurred at Energy Department plants, said Leon Owens, president of the Paducah plant nuclear workers' union.

"Quite naturally, the workers would feel that DOE would rely on (exposure) records already deemed inadequate," he said. "And because the entire case is based on less-than-accurate information, therefore they would be denied their claim."

Effective Friday, federal rules bar the Energy Department, but not its contractors, from doing exposure reconstruction, said Richard Miller, policy analyst for the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C-based citizens' group.

Although its hiring is legal, the consortium's work has been "the backbone" of contractors' defense against sick nuclear worker claims through the years, Miller said, adding, "I'd sure hate to have individuals who spent their time battling claims helping determine eligibility through dose reconstruction."

The consortium was hired by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Larry Elliott, who heads the NIOSH office that will oversee the $70 million, five-year agreement, said the contract has safeguards. One is that a scientist who worked at an Energy Department plant will not be allowed to review the claim of a person who worked at the same site.

Some labor advocates say that is important because a scientist previously in charge of protecting workers from radiation exposure at a nuclear facility may be less inclined to say workers were put at risk there.

Miller said he couldn't find anything in the 41-page consortium contract on the Internet "that even addressed the conflict of interest." It is important that workers know about the problem and may choose who handles their cases, he said.

"The thing has got to have integrity to work," Miller said. "People start out sort of dubious about dose reconstruction."

Elliott said claimants also will know who is assessing their case. ‘‘There will be transparency,’’ he said. ‘‘They’re going to know who is doing their dose reconstruction.’’

Dose reconstruction does not apply to uranium workers in Paducah and elsewhere who automatically quality for $150,000 lump-sum benefits because they have certain radiation-associated cancers, beryllium disease or silicosis. Of more than 2,800 claims filed in Paducah, about 375 have resulted in payments.

Owens said reconstruction does affect Paducah workers who don't automatically qualify for the money but can still seek state workers' compensation benefits. It also affects the more than 7,000 nuclear workers elsewhere who do not work at enrichment plants but have filed claims, he said.

Of the Paducah claims, about 2,200 have been submitted both for lump-sum payments and medical panel review for workers' compensation. But Owens estimates that at least half the Paducah-area people seeking state benefits won't get them even if they deemed eligible.

The reason is that those employees work for USEC Inc., which runs the plant but is not required to pay claims because it is not a DOE contractor. Owens said there is no way to force insurance companies or self-insured employers such as USEC to pay claims even if they are panel-approved.

"That's our challenge, to try to ensure there is someone that will be there to pay and there won't be any inequities — not just at Paducah but across the country," Owens said.

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield is drafting legislation to have the Department of Labor, which pays the lump-sum benefits, pick up the tab when there is no willing payer of state workers’ compensation claims by nuclear employees and their families. Owens said Whitfield hopes to submit the bill this fall to "start the dialogue" among lawmakers.

"Hopefully by next year when Congress reconvenes," Owens said, "we'll have bipartisan support to correct this problem."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.