The Columbus Dispatch

Uranium workers object to changes in compensation

Meetings set to explain revised rules

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Randy Ludlow

For four decades, workers at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant toiled amid toxins and radiation that sent some to early graves and left others with cancer.

Congress decided in 2000 to compensate the nationís sick uranium-enrichment workers for the hidden hazards of producing components for nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

However, some workers and the survivors of those who have died think they might not have received their due.

Proposed rule changes affecting part of the federal program are drawing objections.

The proposals are now interim policies that involve $125,000 death benefits and worker-compensation-disability benefits.

U.S. Labor Department officials will explain the changes tonight in Portsmouth and Wednesday in Piketon.

The plant is near Piketon, about 70 miles south of Columbus.

Officials might get an earful from Sam Ray and others who once worked at the plant, which has since closed.

Before 1992, they enriched weapons-grade uranium, then turned to processing uranium for fuel rods for nuclear-power plants.

Ray, 73, of Lucasville, uses an electronic voice box after losing his larynx to a rare cancer he developed while working 41 years at the plant.

"We donít believe itís going to work," he said of the changes. "Itís unfair. Theyíve taken a program that could work and raised the burden of proof the workers must provide."

Shelby Hallmark, director of workersí compensation programs for the Labor Department, said the proposed rules will not deny benefits to deserving applicants.

The department, he said, will help workers obtain evidence to support claims and estimates of radiation exposure, for example.

Since 2001, about 850 Piketon workers with certain types of cancer and other diseases, and about 300 survivors, have received a total of $124 million in $150,000 lump-sum payments, as well as medical care for life.

The claims of almost 1,050 more workers and survivors of deceased workers at the government-owned plant have been denied the same coverage. They couldnít prove that their illnesses were work-related.

Uranium workers are protesting the death-and-disability component of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. That component began last fall. Federal officials are demanding that sick workers ó and survivors of the dead ó document exposure to hazards and provide medical records and statements from physicians.

Critics say those demands go too far.

A local union leader said the radiation-exposure records kept by Energy Department contractors are unreliable and shouldnot play a role in deciding awards.

Dan Minter is president of United Steel Workers/PACE Local 5-869, Piketonís largest union.

"The litmus test is too high," he said.

Reasonable criteria, he said, should determine who gets benefits, with less dependence on "judgment calls."

Hallmark said federal officials are mindful of their mission to help uranium-plant workers "exposed to some of the most dangerous and toxic materials known to man."

"These individuals certainly went in harmís way in the interest of producing the nuclear weapons used to protect this country during the Cold War. They deserve benefits."

Nationwide, more than 14,000 sick workers and survivors have received nearly $1.1 billion in federal benefits from both programs.

Hazardous-material cleanup and radiation decontamination is continuing at the Piketon plant. The site will be home to a uranium-conversion plant and centrifuge plant expected to create 650 jobs in work-hungry southern Ohio.