Sick workers left in limbo
Leon Owens' description of the plight of a sick nuclear worker caught in the Department of Energy's dysfunctional compensation program presents a powerful challenge to the consciences of DOE's congressional supporters.
Owens, the head of the atomic workers' union at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, told a Senate committee that Rod Cook, a shift superintendent at the plant, waited 18 months for DOE to assign a number to his medical claim.
Having finally cleared this first official hurdle, Cook, who has lost part of his lung to illnesses caused by exposure to asbestos, now faces an indeterminate wait for a panel of doctors to review his medical history and decide whether he should receive workers' compensation.
It's hard to find even a ray of light at the end of this bureaucratic tunnel. The energy agency has received almost 20,000 claims from ailing nuclear workers. As of last week, only 56 claims had been approved.
The General Accounting Office estimates it will take DOE seven years to clear the massive backlog in the compensation program. Some workers already have died waiting for the government to deliver on its promise of just compensation for those who contracted illnesses as a result of their exposure to dangerous conditions in federal nuclear facilities.
Even if Cook's claim is approved, it's unlikely he will receive any benefits. The Energy Department does not have the authority to force private contractors to pay the state workers' compensation claims.
Owens' devastatingly accurate indictment of the DOE program — he called it "a cruel and unusual hoax" — should spur Congress to reconsider a proposal from First District Congressman Ed Whitfield to put the claims program under the Labor Department.
Labor officials administer a nationwide program that provides $150,000 lump-sum payments plus medical compensation for nuclear workers with certain cancers and other radiation-related illnesses.
In less than two years the Labor Department has processed more than 35,000 claims and paid about $700 million to ailing uranium enrichment workers.
Rod Cook suffered a double misfortune. Not only did he damage his health working in the Cold War-era nuclear program, he contracted an illness that placed him in a program where he has little hope of ever receiving compensation.
Congress should not tolerate such a bitter injustice. The government cannot undo the damage to nuclear workers' health, but it can mitigate the suffering caused by unsafe working conditions in federal facilities.
The Labor Department is promptly paying the government's debt to workers with designated illnesses. But workers like Rod Cook are condemned to wait for help that may never arrive.
An Energy Department official told Sen. Jim Bunning and other members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which held the hearing on the compensation program, that the agency was slow to react to the volume of claims but now has gotten its house in order.
It's not surprising Bunning was skeptical. He knows DOE spent $400 million and almost a decade on the cleanup of the uranium enrichment plant in Paducah without removing a single barrel of waste.
The Energy Department specializes in paper-shuffling and foot-dragging. It's a lumbering bureaucracy administering a flawed compensation program. The obvious solution is to shift the program to the Labor Department and authorize it to pay claims from the federal fund set up for sick workers exposed to radiation and beryllium.
This is not a complicated issue; it's a matter of simple justice.