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Posted at 12:45 a.m. EDT Monday, April 17, 2000

  

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Exposed workers: Who to compensate, and how much?

BY KATHERINE RIZZO
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It will be up to Congress to approve, improve or ignore Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's plan to compensate every radiation-exposed, cancer-stricken bomb factory worker, living and dead.

For lawmakers, this will mean decisions both financial and moral:

--What's a fair payment for a shortened life or ruined health?

--What rules should determine who gets paid and who gets left out?

The Clinton administration's plan offers compensation to those with cancer and beryllium disease, but steers other sickened employees to state workers' compensation programs. Officials estimate about 3,000 of the more than 600,000 who worked in the government's weapons factories since the 1950s would qualify.

The administration proposed payments of $100,000 to each worker, or to survivors of deceased workers, but left open the possibility of bigger awards for those proving their past out-of-pocket medical costs and showing they worked in an area with known contamination.

There's sentiment on Capitol Hill to double the minimum payment to $200,000, but also pressure to limit new spending programs to save money for Social Security, tax cuts and debt reduction.

Deciding compensation for weapons plant workers is not the first time Congress has been asked to put a price on the lives of people made irreversibly sick by a government decision.

Lawmakers in years past, either to settle lawsuits or quiet political pressure, have offered payments to black men given only aspirin for their syphilis so the government could track the untreated disease; to residents of the Marshall Islands exposed to radiation during atomic bomb tests; and to miners given nothing more than hard hats for protection while digging uranium ore.

The miners' case closely paralleled that of the weapons plant workers.

Like the workers, the miners were paid by contractors, even though their product went to the government's bombs; the miners were instructed to handle radioactive materials without protective gear, even though scientists knew of its health hazards; and the miners asked for help after too many of them were stricken with cancer for it to be a coincidence.

After nearly 20 years of lobbying, the miners won a compensation law in 1990.

The political climate has changed much since Congress passed that law, said Don Hancock, an advocate of the miners' compensation.

The weapons plant workers seem to have more friends in Washington than the miners did, he said.

``The reason it was so difficult to get the legislation through Congress was that the administration opposed it,'' Hancock said from the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, N.M.

``To get Congress to pass compensation legislation in 1990 took many years and a lot of effort by a a lot of folks,'' he said. ``It was a long, horrible fight.''

When they lobbied Congress, Hancock recalled, the miners -- many of whom were Navajo -- found themselves rebuffed by legislative aides who didn't appreciate the health hazards posed by radiation, who didn't find their case persuasive or who assumed the Indian Health Service medical care was compensation enough.

A group of miners in Washington last week to lobby for changes in their program were elated to hear that lawmakers wanted the Department of Labor to run a compensation program for weapons plant workers.

``Do you think they'd take us, too?'' asked Sarah Harvey Benally, of Delores, Colo. ``We do not like how our program is run'' by the Justice Department.

The Justice Department has denied almost exactly as many compensation claims as it has approved.

``The Justice Department has made people prove their employment and their exposure to be eligible for the compensation. The burden of proof is on the victim,'' said Hancock. ``It's not the Social Security Administration, who's used to dealing with people and their problems. It's lawyers and their bureaucrats, which is an even worse combination.''

Bob Schaefer, an activist who helps community groups demanding environmental accountability from the Energy Department, agreed the newly acknowledged group of radiation victims are in a better political position.

``The miners, many of them, were Navajos -- poor and not powerful at all,'' he said. ``There was clearly an element of racism and the capacity to screw weak communities.

``They're not going to be able to get away with being as cheap or as arrogant when dealing with the unions and empowered local communities'' such as Piketon, Ohio; Paducah, Ky.; and Oak Ridge, Tenn., he said.

Benally said she wants to meet with lawmakers from weapons-plant districts to ask them to incorporate Senate-passed changes to the uranium miners' compensation bill when they write legislation to compensate other radiation victims.

``Our people are sick. A lot of them have thyroid problems, kidney problems, liver problems, leukemia. There's stillborns and stomach cancer. Tell me why we don't deserve this,'' said Benally, whose father was a uranium miner and died of a lung ailment that does not qualify for compensation under the current law.

``The government hasn't done a good job,'' said Hancock. ``We have to learn from those problems.''

------

On the Net:

Alliance for Nuclear Accountability: http://www.ananuclear.org

Radiation Exposure Compensation Program summary of claims awarded to miners and other qualifying groups as of March 1: http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/torts/const/reca/awards.htm

Energy Secretary Richardson's compensation announcement: http://www.doe.gov/news/releases00/aprpr/pr00103.htm

The offer's details: http://www.eh.doe.gov/benefits


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