The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, August 16, 2003

Sick worker bill losing its priority
Whitfield’s bill would improve sick nuclear workers’ compensation, but Congress is more focused on situations in Iraq and homeland security.

By Joe Walker

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield says his bill to improve compensation for sick nuclear workers has taken a back seat to larger, more pressing matters in Congress.

The issue has been dwarfed by situations in Iraq and Iran, homeland security measures, and prescription-drug legislation, he said Friday during a visit to the Energy Employees Compensation Resource Center off Blandville Road. The center was the first of its type nationwide.

Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, met briefly at the center with Roberta Mosier, deputy director of the Department of Labor compensation program in Washington, D.C. Through the program, more than $117 million in claims has been paid to current and former Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers, and more than $600 million nationwide.

"I don't know if we're going to be successful in passing it (new bill) this year," Whitfield said. "We've just been overcome with events. So if we don't get it done this year, we're going to try again next year."

Whitfield said he can't promise the compensation bill will pass even in 2004 because his original legislation to help sick workers had considerable opposition.

The 2000 law provides $150,000 lump-sum payments and free medical care to uranium enrichment workers who have chronic beryllium disease, silicosis or 22 specified cancers associated with radiation exposure. Some argue that the list of qualifying diseases should be expanded.

"There are a lot of people who have cancers that are not on this cohort list, and there are some inequities in it," he said. "Sometimes we can't do everything we'd like to do, but at least I'm going to continue trying. I'm going to be cautiously optimistic about it."

His new bill would authorize the Labor Department to pay workers' compensation to people sickened by nuclear plant toxins. Currently, there is a backlog of more than 17,000 claims under a program run by the Department of Energy. But even if claims are approved by a panel of physicians, insurance companies and self-insured groups can't be forced to pay.

On other matters, Whitfield said Congress probably will investigate Thursday's massive blackout in the upper Midwest and Northeast. He is a member of the House energy subcommittee.

"Transmission, reliability and all of those issues need to be looked at because we have a grid system that's very old," Whitfield said. "And we have a load factor that's quite heavy and inadequate for our needs today."

His Paducah trip came a day after seven of 18 members of the gaseous diffusion plant's citizens' advisory board resigned, claiming the Energy Department was withholding information and ignoring board recommendations. Resigning members said the situation was worsened by a decision to move Paducah DOE staff to a new oversight office in Lexington.

Whitfield said federal law governs information flow and he hopes the board will remain intact. He said he "is optimistic" that in time, the Lexington office will mean more funding and more efficient cleanup at Paducah.

After stopping at the claims center, Whitfield:

Broke ground for a $2.8 million, 4,400-foot paved runway at Marion-Crittenden County Airport, expected to be completed in three years. He helped secure a $1.04 million Federal Aviation Administration grant toward earthwork for the runway, taxiway and apron.

The airport, which has no facilities, has been operating since the mid-1990s with a 2,700-foot turf runway. Paving depends on future funds and could be done next year. Funding during the third year would be used for lighting and other expenses.

Visited Bright Life Farms in Creswell, a Caldwell County community about 10 miles north of Princeton. Whitfield helped with funding for the new complex, which provides mentally and developmentally challenged adults a place to live and work.

Energy Employees Compensation Resource Center numbers are 534-0599 or toll-free 866-534-0599.