July 17, 2006 Monday
SECTION: STATE AND REGIONAL NEWS
Plant retirees not optimistic about pension: The former nuclear workers will meet with Whitfield on July 29.
Jul. 17--Retired Paducah area nuclear workers don't think Rep. Ed Whitfield will have good news when he updates them July 29 on their ongoing battle to improve their pension.
"If there was anything positive in that information it would appear to me he would have already announced something was going to be done," said group spokesman Harry Colbert of Paducah.
A meeting is set for 3 p.m. at the United Steelworkers Local 5-550 meeting hall on Old Cairo Road.
Frustrated by rising medical costs and inflation, the roughly 780 retirees argue that $100 million should be added to the nearly $580 million in their pension account allocated to USEC Inc. in 1999 when federal law was passed to privatize the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Most of the retirees left long before then and wanted their pensions to remain with the Department of Energy because they worked for DOE contractors Union Carbide and/or Lockheed Martin. There are also are 233 surviving spouses.
Whitfield met Feb. 4 with more than 200 retirees and survivors, promising to ask "for a line-item explanation" from DOE on the allocation to USEC for the pension fund. He then wrote Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman criticizing DOE for not having a representative knowledgeable in retiree issues at the meeting.
According to Whitfield field representative David Mast, the congressman received a response that "was close to an inch-thick stack of papers," Colbert said.
Colbert expressed disappointment at not getting a preview of Bodman's response prior to the new meeting. Brent Dolen, Whitfield's press secretary, declined comment.
While the nearly $580 million was moved to USEC to cover retirees from the plants in Paducah and Portsmouth, Ohio, about $2.5 billion stayed in the Oak Ridge fund with DOE. Oak Ridge retirees have received several cost-of-living raises, the latest in 2001, but those from the Paducah and Portsmouth plants have not.
"Our people are passing away almost on a weekly basis," Colbert said, "and they need the money."
Aside from seeking the $100 million, Paducah retirees want to know the logic in separating the pension plans when people in all three communities did the same work.
In February, Whitfield said privatization legislation noted that changes in plant operators had occurred and that the plant operator -- USEC for Paducah and Portsmouth -- would control the pension funds. A sister uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge was run by a government contractor before it closed.
In June 2004, Colbert and 10 other retirees filed suit in U.S. District Court trying to force the government to supplement the Paducah pension fund by $100 million. The action was dismissed on defense arguments that retirees missed the filing deadline by about a month, based on when the pension fund was separated. Retiree attorney Rick Walter maintained that the deadline had not passed.
The case remains with the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
Retirees are fighting an uphill battle because the Energy Department wants to do away with pensions because they are too expensive, Colbert said. "Apparently they've taken a hard line stance against any new increases in pensions."
Last month, Bodman issued a one-year suspension of a new policy restricting cleanup worker pensions. DOE had adopted a policy in April stating that it would not fund new entries into the pension plan because of soaring expenses, but would continue matching 401(k) plans.
Bodman wrote U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, saying he was suspending the policy until 2007. He said DOE would consult with Congress and others over the next year regarding the implications.
"DOE has seen escalating and volatile growth" in costs for pension and other retirement benefits, notably an increase of nearly 200 percent since fiscal year 2000 to an estimated $784 million this year, Bodman wrote. Unfunded debt for the benefits rose to $11.6 billion in fiscal 2005, up 63 percent since 2000.
"I am concerned that this spiraling cost growth will result in fewer dollars available to DOE for meeting our scientific, environmental cleanup and national security missions," Bodman wrote.
DOE officials told Oak Ridge pensioners during a June 22 meeting that they would not get a pay raise, which drew heated response suggesting that retirees would seek political help to the contrary. The group is counting on Republicans Domenici and Rep. Zack Wamp of Tennessee.
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