The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

Union Carbide retirees await help from court Congress

No remedy to pensioners' complaint is imminent, crowd is told.

Matt Sanders
The Paducah Sun

July 30, 2006 Sunday

Jul. 30--The executive committee of retired Paducah area nuclear workers will meet soon to discuss two options to boost their pensions proposed Saturday by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield.

About 100 retirees, mostly from when Union Carbide operated the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, attended the meeting, which was a follow-up to a group discussion with Whitfield in February.

The key issue in both meetings was the retirees' argument that $100 million should be added to the nearly $580 million in their pension account allocated to USEC Inc. in 1999 when federal law privatized the nuclear 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 roughly 780 retirees and 233 surviving spouses.

One option, which Whitfield admitted would "have a minute chance of passing" Congress, would be for him to draft legislation to direct DOE to transfer a proportionate share of the original surplus funds to USEC.

"I'm going to be direct with you: I'm going to have a lot of difficulty directing the federal government to allocate money to a private pension," Whitfield said. "I'm not afraid to go to battle -- that's what introducing some legislation is about. But I'm not aware of Congress transferring any funds to a private company. And, there obviously will be considerable opposition from the Tennessee delegation."

The nearly $580 million covers retirees from the plants in Paducah and Piketon, Ohio, while about $3 billion stayed in the Oak Ridge, Tenn., retirees' fund with DOE. Oak Ridge retirees have received several cost-of-living raises, the latest in 2001, but those from the Paducah and Piketon plants have not.

The second option, Whitfield said, would be to draft legislation to amend the privatization act to establish a specific statute of limitations on separation of the pensions, which could help the retirees' legal efforts to secure the $100 million.

"To establish legislation for a narrowly defined statute could allow the court to hear the merits of the surplus funds," Whitfield said.

The retirees sued in U.S. District Court in 2004, but before it was discussed, the lawsuit was dismissed on arguments that the filing deadline was missed by one month, based on when the pension fund was separated. Retiree attorney Rick Walter said pension funds were transferred on more than one date and argued in court that the deadline had not passed. The dismissal is being challenged in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

"We've been looking for a decision for the last 30 to 45 days," Walter said. "I feel good about the case. One judge I think was siding with us, and one judge probably was not. That leaves the third as a possible swing vote, but I could not read him, and there is no telling how they will rule."

Retiree Harry Colbert, who organized the meetings with Whitfield and was one of 10 retirees to file the lawsuit, liked the idea of legislation to direct the pension transfer, but acknowledged it had little chance of passing.

The executive panel has not picked a date to review the options, Colbert said.

R.C. Ward, who worked at the plant from 1951-84, said it may be best to await the appellate ruling. "This is up in the air right now. One option is no good, even (Whitfield) admitted that."

Walter urged the retirees to ask Whitfield to create the bill to establish a clear statute of limitations. He also said that if the lawsuit dismissal is overturned, the case can be argued in U.S. District Court, eliminating the need of legislation from Whitfield.

"The congressman gave us some options, and the committee must determine what is the best response for retirees and tell that to Mr. Whitfield," Walter said.

Distributed by Knight/Ridder Tribune News Service