Sunday, January 30, 2000

Nuclear workers harmed, U.S. says

'Vindication' for Fernald, Chesley says

Enquirer news services

        WASHINGTON — Reversing a position held for decades, the federal government is for the first time conceding that workers at 14 nuclear weapons plants — including Fernald — likely suffered a wide range of cancers because of exposure to radiation and toxic chemicals, officials said Saturday.

        Although officials cautioned that any decision was a long way off, they said a compensation package could total tens of millions of dollars for a group that might well include hundreds of families.

        The new conclusion comes from the government's most comprehensive review of studies of worker health and raw health data. The review accepts the conclusion of many of those studies, some of them done under contract for the government, that workers were made sick by their exposure.

        The finding goes far beyond an acknowledgment by the government last July that one substance handled by weapons workers, beryllium, had caused some of them to become ill from breathing beryllium dust.

        Of the new conclusion, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said in an interview, “This is the first time that the government is acknowledging that people got cancer from radiation exposure in the plants.”

        The finding is detailed in a draft report prepared by officials of the Energy Department and the White House with the cooperation of a dozen government agencies.

        President Clinton ordered the study in July, when the Energy Department concluded that some of the workers at plants that had supplied beryllium to the government for bomb-making had developed beryllium disease, an incurable lung ailment. The president asked for a broad study that would include the effects of radiation and chemical hazards from uranium, plutonium and other substances.

        He also asked the group to develop a policy on compensation, but that work has not been completed.

        “I'm very pleased there has been a final vindication of the workers,” said Cincinnati lawyer Stanley Chesley, who repre sented employees in a 1994 case in which 7,000 Fernald workers settled a lawsuit against the DOE and their former employer, private contractor NLO Inc. for $20 million for emotional distress, plus medical monitoring.

        “When we took them on — Fernald and the Department of Energy — they looked at me and my clients as if we were crazy,” Mr. Chesley said.

        Also, the 28,000 residents within a 5-mile radius of the Fernald plant in Crosby Township won $73 million for a lifelong program to monitor their health and to compensate them for emotional distress and loss of real estate values. However, no settlement was sought for physical health or cancer claims, Mr. Chesley said.

        As part of the settlement in the residents' claim, $6 million was earmarked for study at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to continue examining effects suffered by residents and Fernald workers, hoping that scientific and medical advances would eventually be able to help pinpoint additional health problems caused by Fernald, Mr. Chesley said.

        “My concern is that when we settled the case we exempted out and did not (include) personal injury or cancer claims” hoping for future medical and scientific advances to be helpful. “Legally, the statute of limitations could pose problems,” Mr. Chesley said.

        “This is good news for all nuclear workers, and I'm sure the workers will be tickled,” said Gene Branham, vice president of the Fernald Atomic Trades and Labor Council, an umbrella group that includes members of various unions at the Fernald facility.

        “This indicates that (people) were exposed and, as a result, became sick or ill and some died of cancer and related sicknesses. I hope that the president's study will be fast in coming and conclusive so that ... the surviving family members (of) ... those who passed away, and those who became sick and those who may become sick, are compensated.”

        Legislation proposed by Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., whose constituents include some of the beryllium disease patients, calls for payments to an estimated 500 to 1,000 former workers who either have the illness or are at high risk of developing it. Total payments in the beryllium cases could range from $15 million to $30 million a year, officials said.

        Walt Schaefer contributed to this report.


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