Friday, April 13, 2001

Chao to compensate ill nuclear workers

Seeks extension on program start-up

By Katherine Rizzo
The Associated Press

        WASHINGTON — Labor Secretary Elaine Chao changed her mind and is willing to take charge of distributing compensation to nuclear weapons workers disabled or killed by Cold War-era exposure, a spokesman for Sen. George Voinovich said Thursday.

        Ms. Chao, however, is seeking an extension on a July 31 deadline for getting the program started, said Scott Milburn, the senator's press secretary.

        She also wants some changes in how rejected claims would be appealed, he said.

        Labor Department officials spent much of Thursday on the phone with senators and Senate aides trying to build support for the proposed changes.

        Congress gave the Labor Department $60.4 million to initiate the new entitlement program, reasoning it was well-prepared because Labor already runs three worker compensation programs.

        Ms. Chao had insisted her department lacked the resources needed to set up the program and said the Justice Department was better equipped.

        Lawmakers who worked hardest to get the program enacted quickly told the White House they opposed moving it. Ten House members introduced a bill to force the Labor Department to run the program for workers who became ill from being exposed to uranium dust, beryllium particles or lung-clogging silica.

    Text of compensation law and preliminary list of sites prepared by Department of Energy.
        Nuclear workers in Paducah, Ky., also turned their union hall into an impromptu phone bank. They repeatedly contacted the offices of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., urging him to persuade Ms. Chao to run the program. Mr. McConnell is married to Ms. Chao.

        The new program offers lifetime medical care and $150,000 to ailing workers who were employed in the nuclear weapons complex, at factories that worked for the Energy Department, or at nuclear test sites in Alaska and Nevada.

        By law, the government should be prepared to accept benefit applications on July 31.

        The new program is limited to those with radiation-related cancer, silicosis or chronic beryllium disease. Eligibility rules for some workers have been set by law, and the Labor Department must work out qualification guidelines for the rest.

        About 600,000 people worked in the weapons complex during the Cold War.

        The Energy Department preliminarily identified 317 sites in 37 states where exposed workers might qualify for benefits.
       A toll-free number set up by that department to field requests has logged more than 19,000 calls. The toll-free information line is (877) 447-9756.

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