Thursday, April 13, 2000

Fernald workers eligible for aid


Energy Dept. wants to pay for illnesses

BY James R. Carroll and Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — Thousands of former workers at the Fernald uranium processing plant would be eligible for federal compensation for job-related illnesses such as cancer under a package announced Wednesday by the Clinton administration.

        Workers from nuclear weapons plants — including the Mound Plant in Dayton and the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon — could choose between a $100,000 lump sum payment; or medical benefits, a portion of lost wages and job training. If a worker has already died, a surviving family member could apply for assistance.

        “Justice for our nuclear weapons workers is finally happening,” said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. “The government, for a change, is on their side and not against them. ... We are reversing the ways of the past.”

        The Clinton administration acknowledged that many workers became ill with cancer and other serious diseases after being exposed to radiation at Cold War-era production facilities. The compensation plan, which must be approved by Congress, would assume that workers were exposed in cases where accurate plant records are not available.

        The package goes beyond a November administration proposal to help workers at the plant in Paducah, Ky., and those exposed to beryllium, a toxic compound used on some types of warheads. The administration will also establish a special advocacy office in May to help workers obtain aid under state workers' compensation guidelines.

        Peter Sansone, of Colerain Township, who worked at

        Fernald for 37 years, said he was turned down for workers' compensation more than a decade ago.

        “It's awful hard sometimes to get anything from the government,” he said. “My lungs are not as good as they used to be.”

        Corilla Kelly, of Harrison, watched her husband, Herbert, a former Fernald worker, slowly die of lung cancer.

        She called the government's proposal “a wonderful idea.”

        “A lot of the time they weren't allowed to tell us what they were doing at the plant. I don't think they were really aware of the danger,” she said.

        Although the Energy Depart ment did not release any specific numbers Wednesday, Stanley Chesley, an attorney for former Fernald employees, said more than 6,000 workers may be covered. Chesley obtained a $15 million settlement from the Energy Department in 1994 on behalf of workers that includes a guarantee of lifelong medical monitoring.

        “This is a step in the right direction,” Mr. Chesley said. “I remember how bleak it was when we first brought the Fernald case. They thought we were nuts.”

        The Energy Department estimates the program would cost about $120 million for the first three years, then about $80 million annually as the number of claims diminishes.

        David Michaels, the department's assistant secretary for environment and health, said the government had for years resisted the fact that workers were exposed to toxic chemicals — at times without their knowledge — and “some of them got sick.”

        Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park, said he wanted to review the package in greater detail, but he called the decision important for former Fernald workers and their families.

        “They worked under difficult and hazardous conditions for the defense of our country; and if the government was responsible for exposing them to dangerous workplace conditions, it is only fair that they should be compensated,” he said.

        The Feed Material Production Center at Fernald produced uranium metal products between 1953 and 1989. The 1,050-acre site northwest of Cincinnati is on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list of the nation's most contaminated toxic locations.

        A study financed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who live near the plant had an above-average risk of developing lung cancer.

       



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