The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, November 22, 2003

Ill workers enduring hoax
The president of the nuclear workers' union in Paducah tells a Senate panel in Washington about unresolved claims.

By Joe Walker

Leon Owens said his friend Rod Cook is a prime example of a "cruel and unfortunate hoax" that the federal government is playing on sick nuclear workers who are hoping to get workers' compensation.

Cook, 54, a shift superintendent at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, lost one-fifth of his lung function from breathing asbestos earlier as a plant operator. Surgeons had to remove part of his lung and seven feet of tissue built up around the lung.

Cook filed a claim with the Department of Energy in May 2002 but didn't get a claim number until a couple of weeks ago, when he was finally asked for his medical records. Even when an eligibility decision is reached, DOE has no power to force Cook's current employer, self-insured USEC Inc., or past employers' insurers to pay claims, Owens testified in a Senate hearing Friday in Washington, D.C.

"Who will own responsibility for paying Rod's claim?" Owens asked members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "If Rod becomes disabled, as many are, will they have to wait for years while DOE looks for a willing payer? Or should Congress step in and assure a willing payer for valid claims?"

Cook said last year that he agreed to give the plant a hard day's work, but not part of his lung. "Somehow, I’d like to be compensated by somebody."

U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Southgate, called the hearing out of concern that 2,400 sick Paducah workers are waiting to have their compensation cases heard. He said he hopes the hearing and a final report from the General Accounting Office will be the push needed to end a nationwide backlog of 20,000 claims that the GAO earlier estimated would take until 2010 to work though.

Owens, president of the Paducah nuclear workers' union, wants Congress to strip DOE of claims processing and give it to the Department of Labor with clout to pay the money. Energy Undersecretary Robert Card said Congress should give his agency more money if lawmakers want the program to move faster.

Congress approved $25 million for the program this year and has appropriated only $16 million for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. Card said almost three times that much was needed to clear the claims backlog. Bunning and other senators were skeptical.

The claims program has two parts:

One run by the Labor Department, which provides $150,000 lump-sum payments and medical costs to uranium enrichment workers with specified cancers and other radiation-related illnesses. The Labor Department has finished 95 percent of its more than 35,000 claims and paid nearly $700 million nationwide. Of the $700 million, more than $125 million has been paid to Paducah workers.

Another overseen by the Department of Energy for workers exposed to toxins. Under those guidelines, a physicians' panel reviews cases and recommends whether workers' compensation should be paid. Only one of 2,215 claims in Paducah had been reviewed as of Nov. 1, and no claims had been paid, Owens testified.

Of 19,690 claims nationwide, DOE had processed only 109 as of Nov. 11. The panel had approved 56 claims and rejected 53, but "to our knowledge, none of the claims" has been paid, testified Richard Miller, policy analyst for the Government Accountability Project watchdog group.

Miller said DOE has not even begun developing three-fourths of the claims. Even if the logjam were eliminated, there would be no one to pay the money, Owens testified.

"To give workers a physicians' panel determination and then tell them, ‘Sorry, there is no one to pay the claim,’ perpetrates a cruel and unusual hoax," Owens said.

He said nearly one-fourth of the roughly 1,900 workers screened by the union at Paducah have job-related lung diseases, including asbestosis, chronic bronchitis, silicosis and emphysema. Forty-two people have had at least one positive blood test for beryllium sensitivity, and one person has been diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease, Owens said.

Until February 2000, the Energy Department had never told workers beryllium was present at the plant, even though it was identified in 1994, Owens said. The heavy metal was machined by unprotected workers as part of Cold War nuclear weapons dismantling. Worker testing for beryllium didn't start until 2001.

Miller said DOE has "stonewalled" states, such as Ohio, that offered to pay claims for toxic exposure. Although the Energy Department wants a huge increase in its budget to $59 million to accelerate claims processing, the Labor Department runs its program for $35 million a year, he said. Miller said the Labor Department is much more prepared with 200 trained claims examiners at four offices ready to start work as soon as assigned.

Card defended the Energy Department, saying case processing has increased from less than 20 a week last spring to more than 20 a day now. He said DOE severely underestimated the number of claims it would receive and the cost and time necessary to process them.

"The department did not react quickly enough" to improve things, Card said.

Earlier this month, Congress rejected an amendment co-sponsored by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to shift the toxic-claims program to the Labor Department. Grassley testified in the hearing that the provision was stiffly opposed by the Energy Department and its claims contractor. He called DOE's performance "abysmal."

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