The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

Sick workers get first chance to talk of new Labor payouts

Two more town-hall meetings are set for today to talk about worker compensation for illness from toxic exposure.

By Joe Walker

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Former Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant worker Earl Hobbs says he was fortunate to have bone cancer because it is one of 22 specified radiation-induced diseases for which the U.S. Department of Labor pays $150,000 in lump-sum compensation.

"The bone cancer has actually been a blessing in that a lot of stuff has been paid for," he said of his two-year bout with the disease. It started as prostate cancer — which doesn't qualify for the $150,000 — in February 2003 and spread through his lymph system to his bones.

Hobbs, 53, of Paducah, was among more than 200 people who attended a Labor Department town-hall meeting Tuesday night at the Robert Cherry Civic Center to outline a new program to compensate nuclear workers for diseases related to toxic exposure. Similar meetings are set for 2 and 6 p.m. today at the center.

Hobbs learned that he and others who were paid $150,000 automatically qualify for compensation under the new program. It provides that workers exposed to toxins could get up to $250,000 for lost wages and bodily impairment. Some of the sickest workers could get as much as $400,000 under both programs.

This is the first time Labor Department officials have visited Paducah since federal legislation was passed in October to streamline the toxic-exposure program. Congress transferred the program from the U.S. Department of Energy, which had 25,000 claims backlogged nationwide, including nearly 3,400 at Paducah.

Hobbs said he's glad the Energy Department was replaced because it had no reason to expedite claims, considering that the agency owns the plant and covered up past worker exposures.

His toxic-exposure claim has been in the pipeline for two years, and he believes his cancer stemmed from working without protection in two of several buildings contaminated with plutonium and other deadly substances. Most of the buildings are now closed because of the dangers.

"I think anybody who ever set foot in those buildings ought to get a free pass (compensation) from you people," he told Pete Turcic, director of the compensation program.

The new program allows surviving spouses and dependent children of workers who died from toxic exposure to receive up to $175,000. An eligible child must have been under 18, a full-time student under 23, or any age and incapable of self-support, at the time of the worker's death.

Several adult children of deceased workers complained that the child-survivor provision is unfair and should be changed. Sandy Sams of Paducah said she is ineligible for compensation even though she helped support her family when her father died many years ago from presumed plant exposure.

"I think a lot of us feel the same way — that we were cheated out of our parents and now we're being cheated out of compensation," Sams said, drawing applause.

Other sick workers complained that their compensation hinges on old, spotty plant records and cumbersome exposure reconstructions. George Bourgois of Paducah, a former plant instrument mechanic, has been waiting nearly five years for an answer to his claim. He suffers from many maladies including chronic lung disease and the slow death of nerves in his lower legs and feet, and says he was exposed to the radionuclide Cobalt 60.

"They can't reconstruct my (radiation) dose," he said.

The bogged-down toxin-exposure program has paid only about $5 million on behalf of Paducah workers, compared with $186 million for those with radiation-induced cancers. Turcic said all of the backlogged claims have now been transferred to the Labor Department, which by May will have rules, procedures and staffing in place to start processing the bulk of the claims.

Claims may be filed at the Paducah Energy Employees Compensation Resource Center, 125 Memorial Drive, next to Milner & Orr Funeral Home off Blandville Road. Phone: 534-0599 or toll-free 866-534-0599.