Dying for help

Ailing nuclear workers seeking Energy Department’s help find their claims are trapped in bureaucracy

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

By Jonathan Riskind

WASHINGTON — After toiling for 29 years in southern Ohio’s uranium-enrichment plant, 83-year-old Ford Kleinman thinks he should be compensated for work that aided the nation’s nucleardefense program — and left him struggling with asbestosis and other health problems.

"I was into everything out there," said Kleinman, an electrician who retired in 1983 from the Piketon plant. "You could see that stuff flying through the air in a cloud. If they called, I had to go. And if it was knee deep, I had to wade."

But advocates say Kleinman and other nuclear workers and their families could remain stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire because of federal turf battles and special-interest lobbying.

"There are people who need help, who deserve help, who qualify for help and because of the intransigence of this government they are being denied help," said Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland of Lucasville. "That is a sad fact."

A law that went into effect in July 2001 said Cold War-era nuclear workers sickened by exposure to deadly materials are owed compensation.

Those who contracted certain cancers are eligible for a federal payment of $150,000. All sickened workers can apply to the U.S. Department of Energy for assistance in gaining state workers’ compensation benefits.

But like thousands of former nuclear workers nationwide, Kleinman’s bid for the state benefits has been stalled for months by what critics charge is bureaucratic bungling and ineptitude.

Battle for control

The Energy Department is supposed to help the workers put together case files and pursue state benefits. But only 264 of more than 20,000 applications sent in as of Oct. 10 have been finished and sent to a physicians review panel, according to the Energy Department. That includes 795 cases from Ohio.

So in a rare congressional attempt to punish a federal agency that doesn’t perform, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, moved to transfer control of the program to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The Labor Department runs the federal compensation program and is better equipped to assemble workers’ compensation case files, say advocates for the nuclear workers.

Among the Ohio lawmakers aligned with Grassley are Strickland and GOP Sens. George V. Voinovich and Mike DeWine.

Although proponents are hoping for a final-hour turnaround, they acknowledge it is an uphill battle and the proposal officially could die as early as today. It was left out of a House-Senate conference-committee version of the final 2004 energy-spending bill.

The Energy Department campaigned to keep the program, say lawmakers and staff members on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, they say, the Labor Department, while willing to accept the program, didn’t lobby for it.

Perhaps the most vigorous lobbying has come from Louisiana-based Science & Engineering Associates, the company being paid millions by the Energy Department to process the claims. Promises of progress

The company was aided by Louisiana Sens. John Breaux and Mary Landrieu, both Democrats, and a roster of lobbyists already in SEA’s employ, including the firm of former Louisiana Republican Rep. Bob Livingston.

Top SEA executives have contributed thousands of dollars to members of Congress, including Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico.

Domenici, chairman of the Senate Appropriation Committee’s energy subcommittee, has been sympathetic to the Energy Department’s side, sources say.

The possible defeat of Grassley’s proposal is a case of "special interests winning out over cancer victims" and workers with other health problems, said one angry Senate staff member.

The Congressional Accountability Project, an advocate for nuclear workers, says neither SEA nor the energy department have experience putting together workers’ compensation cases.

That explains "the snail’s pace of claims development," the group charged.

Bobby Savoie, SEA chief executive officer, declined to comment, saying only, "This is an issue for the Department of Energy to answer."

The Energy Department says SEA has a contract with the Navy for work at the Space and Naval Warfare Information Technology Center. The Energy Department’s program is being performed under that agreement.

The Energy Department has paid $9 million to the Navy, "which has reimbursed SEA for their support to the (workers’ compensation) program over the past two years," according to the department’s written response to Dispatch questions.

The Energy Department has asked Congress to allow it to shift $9.7 million from other sources, with about one-third of that for SEA activities.

Meanwhile, Energy Department and company officials willing to speak only on background insist that SEA has the appropriate experience and that the pace of claims processing is picking up.

They also say transferring the program to the Labor Department would simply delay matters further.

A memo written by Tom Rollow, the Energy Department’s director of worker advocacy, says that the $9.7 million will enable it to process the entire backlog of 18,000-plus cases up to the physicians panels within a year.

Lawmakers who wanted to move the work to the Labor Department are skeptical.

"Congress cannot wager another bet of millions of dollars on a department with a poor track record while nuclear workers wait for help," stated a recent letter written by House Republicans John Duncan of Tennessee, Jim Leach of Iowa and Ed Whitfield of Kentucky.