The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

National groups say sick-worker rules fall short

The two watchdog groups indicate that the Department of Labor rules don't measure up to Congress' intent.

By Joe Walker
jwalker@paducahsun.com
270.575.8656

Friday, June 10, 2005

New U.S. Department of Labor rules fall well short of lawmakers' intent to compensate families of nuclear workers sickened by toxic exposure, two national watchdog groups say.

The Washington, D.C.-based Government Accountability Project and the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, based in Oak Ridge, Tenn., have responded strongly to interim final rules issued May 27. The Labor Department is expected to start paying the bulk of the money this summer, and thousands of nuclear workers — including those at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant — have claims pending.

In a press release and interview, Richard Miller, senior policy analyst for the Accountability Project, said the rules conflict in two primary ways with federal law passed last fall:

For radiation-related cancers, the rules require that for compensation to be granted, it must be "at least as likely as not that exposure to radiation caused the illness." Miller, who formerly represented the nuclear workers' union and has spent years working on sick-worker legislation, said Congress intended that proof of causation be roughly 20 to 50 percent, rather than at least 50 percent.

"Raising the bar will eliminate compensation for thousands of workers and their survivors, and violates the plain language of the law," he said.

Congress directed the Labor Department to pay workers $2,500 for each percentage point of impairment caused by their job illnesses, up to $250,000, as determined by the American Medical Association guides. The rules deny impairment benefits for illnesses not listed in the guides, even though lawmakers want those claims reviewed case by case, Miller said.

In particular, workers with neurotoxic effects from exposure to heavy metals such as mercury, lead or solvents will receive no impairment benefits, he said.

"I talked to the Labor Department about that, and they said it was their lawyers' position," Miller said. "That's not a good answer, it's not good policy, it's not reasonable, and it deviates from what Congress wanted them to do."

Shelby Hallmark, director of the Office of Worker´s Compensation Programs for the Labor Department, said in a prepared statement that public concerns are welcome and will be considered in developing the final rule. But some recent claims about the interim rule are based on misinformation that could hurt workers and their families by discouraging eligible people from applying for benefits, he said.

"We have always gone the extra mile to ensure that people get the benefits they deserve under the law, and we will do so again in assisting people in developing their claims" under the new program, he said.

Hallmark said the department will hold more town hall meetings and conduct other programs starting this month to educate workers and families.

In previous meetings, many workers have said they doubt that tainted, incomplete or nonexistent plant records can support their claims. Miller said the rules don't say how exhaustive records searches must be or if lack of records will present "an insurmountable bar" for workers.

In a press release, the workers' alliance expressed concern that the majority of sick workers and families won't get paid. The group said problems range from how the Labor Department will determine impairment ratings to claimants' having to submit burdensome documents to prove their cases.

"I'm disgusted," said Harry Williams of the Coalition for a Healthy Environment in Knoxville, Tenn., one of four groups in the alliance. "We knew the regulations would not be perfect, but what they wrote is riddled with obstacles for the claimants."

Janine Anderson of the coalition said the rules put the burden of proof on claimants and make it impossible to prove cases for illnesses that are secondary or related to treatment of a primary disease.

The alliance said it is issuing a white paper on the rules and demanding they be changed. Miller said he will talk with legislative staff once they are briefed by Labor Department officials, starting today.

Groups of adult survivors, who have criticized the law for excluding them from compensation, picketed Tuesday and again Thursday at the Paducah Energy Employees Compensation Resource Center. Organizer Gena Baker of Livingston County said about 70 people signed a petition demanding that the law be changed.

The rules are available at www.dol.gov/esa/regs/compliance/owcp/eeoicp/law/thelaw.htm. Detailed analysis is available at www. whistleblower.org.

Claims may be filed or reviewed at the resource center, 125 Memorial Drive, next to Milner & Orr Funeral Home off Blandville Road. Phone: 534-0599 or toll-free 866-534-0599.