The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Sunday, November 09, 2003

DOE power play hurts workers

When common sense gets trashed in Washington, it's usually because power politics and sheer indifference ganged up against it. That combination proved fatal to a proposal to help sick nuclear workers escape the clutches of an arrogant and indifferent Energy Department bureaucracy.

An amendment to a spending bill in the Senate would have transferred authority for a program to compensate ailing workers at nuclear facilities such as the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant from the Department of Energy to the Department of Labor, which has successfully administered a separate claims program for uranium workers suffering from illnesses related to radiation exposure.

The argument for the shift was based on simple math. Labor officials have processed more than 30,000 claims and handed out checks totaling $700 million to sick workers.

By contrast, DOE has managed to process fewer than 50 claims in a program that is supposed to compensate workers exposed to toxins at federal nuclear facilities. The program has a backlog of more than 19,000 claims, and the General Accounting Office says it will take DOE seven years to clear all the claims.

When the Senate amendment was introduced, Leon Owens, president of the Paducah local of the union that represents nuclear workers, remarked, "A couple of years is more than sufficient time (for DOE to expedite claims). Politically, people realize this part of the law just hasn't worked."

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, agreed with Owens.

"It just makes common sense to move these claims to the people who have the expertise to process them," Grassley said.

Apparently "common sense" couldn't compete with a Louisiana-based contractor and its Washington lobbyists.

Science and Engineering Associates, which processes the claims for DOE, lobbied heavily to retain the program, union leaders and representatives of two watchdog groups told the Sun.

The company's position may have been strengthened by its campaign contributions to a powerful Republican senator, Pete Domenici of New Mexico. Louisiana's senators, John Breaux and Mary Landrieu, also applied pressure on behalf of SEA.

Breaux is a Democrat, but as a moderate who occasionally backs bills promoted by President Bush, he has White House connections that probably proved useful in his efforts to derail the amendment.

The Bush administration opposed moving the program from DOE to the Labor Department.

If administration officials were calculating the political angles on this dispute, they should have taken into account the indirect benefits of allowing Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, to assume responsibility for most of the DOE claims program.

Chao's diligent work in overseeing the program for workers exposed to radiation has won praise from constituencies that usually are skeptical of Republican administrations.

But if the program for workers exposed to toxins remains under DOE, the Bush administration may find itself trying to explain horror stories involving claimants who waited for years on the list and died without receiving just compensation.

Richard Miller, a policy analyst for the Government Accountability Project, said it was unclear why "DOE is so attached to a program that it lacks the expertise or infrastructure to administer."

Perhaps a hearing scheduled by Sen. Jim Bunning, a supporter of the failed amendment, will shed more light on why the Bush administration and DOE have failed to respond to common sense on the compensation issue.