Friday, July 16, 1999

Fernald payback possible


Ex-workers must wait for study

BY PAUL BARTON
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — The federal government raised the possibility for the first time Thursday that it will acknowledge responsibility for causing worker-related illnesses at the Fernald uranium-processing plant and compensate those affected.

        Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said he plans to push for compensation for a wide range of illnesses — including radiation-related cancers — related to the handling of toxic substances at nuclear weapons plants nationwide.

        “Many of the men and women who helped us win the Cold War worked in extremely hazardous conditions and were exposed to extremely hazardous substances,” Mr. Richardson said.

        Union officials representing Department of Energy workers said such a program could reopen compensation questions at Fernald, a former uranium-processing facility near Cincinnati.

        Fernald workers obtained a $15 million class-action settlement in 1995 by suing the former contractor at the plant, National Lead of Ohio.

        Historically, however, workers at such facilities have not received direct compensation from the federal government because they were working for contractors, not the Energy Department itself.

        Richard Miller, spokesman for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers' International Union (PACE), said that if Mr. Richardson follows through on his intentions, former Fernald workers may decide a direct federal compensation plan is more beneficial than payments provided by their class-action suit settlement.

        Mr. Miller noted that benefits under the Fernald settlement are tied in large part to the state workers' compensation system. State systems have not been viewed as adequately addressing occupational illnesses.

        Mr. Richardson made his comments as he announced immediate plans to send a proposal to Congress for compensation for symptoms related to beryllium, a metal used in weapons production that gives off toxic dust.

        The compensation plan calls for $13 million a year to cover benefits for those diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease.

        More than 35,000 workers nationwide have been exposed to beryllium since the start of the Cold War.

        Mr. Richardson and other Clinton administration officials said a review to be coordinated by the National Economic Council will determine what other worker illnesses will be covered. That report is due by March 31.

        “This is not the end of it,” Mr. Richardson said.

        The federal government has never before acknowledged responsibility for health problems of nuclear plant workers.

        Historically, the Energy Department has fought worker-related suits brought across the nuclear weapons complex and defeated them on procedural grounds.

        Officials at PACE, the union representing atomic workers, expressed dismay Thursday that the Clinton administration did not immediately include illnesses besides those related to beryllium.

        The review that will take until March “is a cynical maneuver to paper over the problem with presidential letterhead — we want action, not fancy memos,” said Robert E. Wages, executive vice president of the union.

        “We invited Congress to expand the proposal offered by Secretary Richardson to cover radiation and other causes of occupational disease, in addition to beryllium,” Mr. Wages said. “An equitable worker compensation program for our nation's "veterans of the Cold War' is long overdue.”

       



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