The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

Decision coming on sick worker program home

A congressional committee begins meeting Monday on the bill that will declare who handles compensation for sick nuclear workers.

By Joe Walker
jwalker@paducahsun.com
270.575.8656

Owens

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Having lost about a fourth of his liver function from chemical exposure at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, Larry Wagner has a valid workers' compensation claim but may never get paid.

"They say I've had damage from my work and am entitled to money," said Wagner, a Farley resident who will turn 51 next month. "But there's nobody there to pay it."

Wagner is among tens of thousands of sick nuclear workers nationwide caught in a massive Department of Energy claims backlog. As of the end of July, DOE had paid 31 toxic-exposure claims out of about 25,000 filed, for an average benefit of about $22,500.

Even if DOE eliminates the backlog by the 2006 target, there is no way to force insurance companies or self-insured employers to pay claims. Leon Owens of Paducah is in Washington, D.C., this week asking for House support for a measure to fix the program by transferring it to the Department of Labor and have that agency pay claims. The Labor Department has paid about $900 million — including $154 million at Paducah — to nuclear workers sickened from exposure to radiation, beryllium and silicon.

Owens, former president of the Paducah nuclear workers' union, wants Kentucky's five other U.S. representatives to sign a letter from 1st District Rep. Ed Whitfield of Hopkinsville lobbying for the change. The letter bears the names of 40 respresentatives who have signed or promised to sign, including 4th District Rep. Ken Lucas of Kentucky and Reps. John Shimkus and Jerry Costello of southern Illinois. The letter will go to the House-Senate Conference Committee, which starts work Monday.

Whitfield is seeking support for a Defense Authorization Bill amendment by Sen. Jim Bunning that the Bush administration opposes. The letter points to the huge backlog despite DOE's having received $90 million from Congress for administrative costs over the past four years. It also says that half the workers filing claims will wind up without a "willing" payer.

The Energy Department has submitted legislation to try to hold onto its program by reimbursing current or former DOE contractors and subcontractors, state workers´ compensation agencies or anyone else who would pay claims voluntarily.

Instead of supporting legislation by Whitfield to transfer claims to the Labor Department, the House amended the defense bill to eliminate a pay cap for DOE physician panelists in hopes of accelerating claims. Conferees must work out the differences in the two amendments.

While Whitfield and Bunning have been publicly outspoken for the Senate amendment, Sen. Mitch McConnell has not. McConnell is married to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, whose department follows the Bush administration stance.

"Sen. McConnell hasn't taken a lead position for various reasons," Owens said. "But he continues to work quietly behind the scenes in support of the legislation."

Wagner hopes the efforts by Whitfield and Owens are successful. He filed a claim in 2001 and was notified a few months later that he did not qualify for $150,000 lump-compensation from the Labor Department.

His claim then went to the Energy Department, where it remained for about 2 years until last spring when the panel informed him his liver disease was consistent with exposure to the now-banned solvent trichloroethylene (TCE). A 30-year plant employee, Wagner said he used TCE many times, briefly as a janitorial worker and then for the bulk of his career in power operations.

"They (panelists) suggested I file a workers' compensation claim for permanent disability, which I'm doing," he said. "But what the state workers' compensation people tell me is there is no willing payer."

Wagner said the exposure apparently occurred while he worked for government contractors who ran the plant until USEC Inc. took over in 1994. Bechtel Jacobs, an environmental firm that succeeded the last of the plant contractors, wrote Wagner that it was awaiting documents from DOE to see if the claim merited payment by Bechtel Jacobs' insurer, he said.

Wagner said he has no idea how much he would be paid, but the amount would be based on his percentage of total disability. Although he has mild chronic lung disease and has been exposed to radiation, the panel finding was solely because of liver dysfunction, he said.

The liver trouble showed up several years ago from a battery of tests stemming from enzyme problems. His physician wrote the panel that Wagner wasn't undergoing major treatment, but might have to later if the problem worsened.

"My doctor told me a long time ago that it's not something that's going to heal up," Wagner said.