Clinton budget: $13M for beryllium workers

February 8, 2000

WASHINGTON - President Clinton's budget includes relief for victims of beryllium disease in the Toledo area and nationwide.

He asked Congress yesterday to spend $12.8 million to compensate workers who became ill from exposure to toxic beryllium dust while helping produce nuclear bombs and other weapons.

Mr. Clinton's request is part of a $17 million request for the U.S. Energy Department to begin the expensive process of compensating workers who became sick, or the families of workers who died, from exposure to beryllium or radiation.

Congress would need to approve the spending, which would be folded into legislation announced in the summer by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. The plan would offer workers or their families either a $100,000 payment or an amount equal to medical costs and lost wages.

In March, The Blade began publishing a series of articles that exposed a 50-year pattern of misconduct by the U.S. government and the American beryllium industry - wrongdoing that caused the injuries and deaths of dozens of workers producing the metal, whose dust can cause an incurable, chronic lung disease.

The series has sparked major safety reforms and two congressional investigations and was instrumental in a historic admission by the federal government, which, for the first time, acknowledged that it had harmed Cold War weapon workers. In July, the Clinton Administration asked Congress to compensate these victims - a request that has resulted in three bills before Congress.

One of those bills was introduced by Rep. Paul Kanjorski, a Democrat whose district in eastern Pennsylvania includes numerous beryllium disease victims.

"Americans suffering from occupational diseases contracted as a result of their work for the federal government deserve compensation," he said yesterday. "These workers are injured warriors from the Cold War."

He said that Mr. Clinton "deserves a great deal of credit for acknowledging the responsibility the federal government bears for the shortened lives and damaged health suffered by these workers."

Richard Miller, a policy analyst for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union, whose membership includes workers at beryllium plants, hailed the budget proposal as an "important first step. Secretary Richardson is showing good faith by backing up his proposed bill with money to implement it."

Theresa Norgard, a Manitou Beach, Mich., resident and a leading advocate for beryllium victims, welcomed the budget plan but feared not all victims would be covered or that some would lose their right to sue if they accepted compensation.

Mr. Clinton proposes $12.8 million for workers who contracted beryllium disease, $2.2 million to compensate sick workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky, and $2 million for those at the Oak Ridge plant in Tennessee.

The cost to the federal government to pay workers and their families could exceed $100 million, according to some estimates.

An estimated 1,200 Americans have contracted beryllium disease nationwide since the 1940s, including at least 65 current or former workers at the Brush Wellman plant outside Elmore. The facility, 20 miles southeast of Toledo, is the country's main beryllium processing plant.

Brush Wellman spokesman Hugh Hanes declined to comment, referring questions to Thomas Clare, a lawyer representing the beryllium firm. Mr. Clare said he had not seen the specifics of the budget plan, but "if it does benefit Brush Wellman employees, or former employees, there's no reason for us to oppose it."

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