Retirees find few answers when asking why their funds haven't increased like their counterparts at Oak Ridge
By Joe Walker email@example.com
Although they never worked for current plant operator USEC Inc., the firm controls their pension and says its isn't financially "prudent" to increase payouts. The retirees can't understand why they were separated from a much larger pension fund under the Department of Energy umbrella that gave about 13,000 fellow pensioners in Oak Ridge, Tenn., an average 15 percent raise just two years ago.
Paducah pensioners, who were uranium enrichment employees, say the increase also applies to Paducah environmental cleanup workers when they retire. Many of the environmental workers, now with Bechtel Jacobs and its subcontractors, are former enrichment plant workers.
DOE lawyers tell the Paducah retirees the change was part of the 1995 federal law that privatized USEC. But leaders of the retirees' group are skeptical, saying they can't find any such language. They also are upset that the department has not provided supportive documentation.
"They don't want us to see that information, or we would've already had it," said 80-year-old Tom Emerson, who worked at the Paducah plant for 31 years, all with former operator Union Carbide Corp. "Meanwhile, our pension is being eaten up by increases in the cost of living and supplemental health insurance."
Leaders of the Paducah group began asking the Energy Department in December 2001 for documentation to explain the separation. They were told to file a Freedom of Information Act request, which they did last June. Two months later, DOE officials told them to resubmit the request because the original couldn't be found.
Retirees are still awaiting a response, even though the law requires federal agencies to answer within 20 working days. Their recourse, which they haven't yet used, is to file an appeal within the Energy Department. If that fails, they can opt for a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to force a response.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, who wrote Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham in July asking for the same information, also is still waiting. "Our office has contacted the Department of Energy on several occasions, but we have not received a response to the senator's letter," said Robert Steurer, McConnell's press secretary.
Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Southgate, who is just starting to investigate, sent a letter Feb. 28 to the Energy Department, said Mike Reynard, Bunning's press secretary.
On Feb. 21, the Sun sent a list of questions to the Energy Department about delays in responding to retirees and McConnell. Despite repeated assurances of an answer by public affairs officers, none came during the past two weeks.
Although McConnell and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, have spent considerable time helping Paducah pensioners investigate, they say it would take more legislation to reunite the retirees with the Oak Ridge group. So far, no bills have been introduced to do that.
"Congress did it to us," Emerson said. "Congress should undo it."
Led by A.K. Edwards, the Paducah retirees began raising concerns in early 2001 after the Oak Ridge group protested and got sliding-scale increases of 4 to 23 percent in their pensions. That July, DOE General Counsel Lee Otis wrote Whitfield, saying the department was no longer responsible for Paducah pensioners.
Whitfield then met with Edwards and others. "Virtually the last thing he said was, we'd better get ourselves a lawyer," said Harry Colbert, 76, who worked at the enrichment plant for 34 years, mostly with Carbide.
Colbert, who has conducted extensive research, said he finds nothing in privatization law to justify the pension transfer for retirees. Language introducing the legislation said the law provided for the transfer of pension benefits for "current employees."
Although DOE officials attribute the transfer to the law and "subsequent negotiations" between DOE and USEC, the department has never provided supporting documents, Colbert said.
Paducah retirees say the old pension fund, started more than 50 years ago, had more than $3 billion when it was broken up in May 1999 as USEC started operating the plant. Oak Ridge pensioners got about $2.5 billion and USEC about $548 million.
In July 2001, USEC wrote it had done an analysis comparing "a similar population of Paducah retirees" with those under the Oak Ridge plan. Although the USEC pension had a $121 million surplus, there was a $112 million deficit in funding for medical benefits for retirees. That left a net surplus of just $9 million, so it was not "prudent" to raise pensions, the letter said.
"Whose benefit was it for us to be included in the USEC fund?" Colbert asked. "It sure as hell wasn't ours."
Without support to change the act that privatized USEC, his group must consider suing to force action. But Colbert said pensioners can't even get information from the Energy Department to go to see a lawyer.
"If we can't get it done through the legislature, the only other way we're going to make any progress is to file some kind of suit," Colbert said. "But we don't know whom to sue or what to sue about, yet."
'They (Energy Department) don't want us to see that information, or we would've already had it. Meanwhile, our pension is being eaten up by increases in the cost of living and supplemental health insurance.'