U.S starts bid to pay victims of beryllium
July 15, 1999
WASHINGTON - Energy Secretary Bill Richardson today will announce a major plan to compensate American workers harmed by the deadly metal beryllium during the Cold War arms buildup.
The plan could benefit scores of victims - many in the Toledo area - and represents a significant admission that the U.S. government is at fault for the injuries and deaths that have occurred.
Mr. Richardson will detail the plan at a news conference here, energy officials said. Several members of Congress are expected to attend, including U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo.
"This is a very historic announcement that will affect beryllium workers in our community and across the country," Miss Kaptur said.
Pennsylvania Congressman Paul Kanjorski called the plan "a landmark approach" and an example "of how government should function."
And an Energy Department spokesman, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: "This is the first time the Department of Energy has accepted responsibility and taken concrete action to reconcile the past wrongs" suffered by hundreds of private industry beryllium workers.
Energy officials and lawmakers would not release details of the plan. But they previously have said it will treat beryllium workers of federal contractors and suppliers essentially as government employees, offering them benefits for chronic beryllium disease, the often-fatal lung illness caused by the metal's toxic dust.
And an outline of the plan obtained by The Blade said victims will be reimbursed for medical costs and some lost wages. Some victims would have the option of a single, lump-sum benefit of $100,000.
"While not military veterans per se, these workers faithfully served the nation as soldiers of the Cold War, and, in doing so, faced risk to their health," the outline states.
In the past, the outline states, the Energy Department routinely opposed claims of work-related illnesses, "regardless of merit." The government usually won subsequent lawsuits, but "its position has generated strong criticism."
"The proposed program will reverse this approach and allow the government to take responsibility where it is clear harm has been done," the outline states.
Miss Kaptur and Mr. Kanjorski, both Democrats, said they soon will introduce the plan as a bill in the House of Representatives. Congress would have to approve it, but they said they are optimistic that will happen.
Energy officials said the plan has been in the works since December, when Mr. Richardson asked Dr. David Michaels, an assistant energy secretary, to investigate worker illnesses at government sites.
Dr. Michaels credited a recent series in The Blade for focusing the Energy Department on the beryllium industry and sparking interest by members of Congress. Miss Kaptur credited the series for creating interest in the compensation plan. "It really moved the issue along," she said.
The series, published March 28 through April 2, detailed a decades-long pattern of the U.S. government and the beryllium industry sacrificing workers' lives for the production of the metal. Year after year, the government and industry officials knowingly allowed workers to be exposed to levels of beryllium dust over the federal safety limit.
Many of these workers went on to contract beryllium disease, and some died.
Victims and their advocates welcomed the federal compensation plan.
"Bravo!" said Theresa Norgard, a Manitou Beach, Mich., resident whose husband, David, has beryllium disease.
But she wondered who exactly will qualify for compensation and whether there will be any catches.
"I want to know who is in and who is out and why," she said.
Gary Renwand, a 61-year-old beryllium victim from Oak Harbor, agreed. "Do you get this one lump-sum payment and then not get any more worker's comp?"
James Heckbert, an attorney for victims in Colorado and Tennessee, said he is concerned whether workers would have to give up their rights to sue the government if they accepted federal benefits.
Beryllium is a strong, lightweight material that has been critical to the production of nuclear bombs and other weapons for more than 50 years. An estimated 1,200 people have contracted beryllium disease nationwide since the 1940s.
Energy officials have called beryllium disease the No. 1 illness caused directly by the Cold War buildup.
Locally, at least 53 current or former workers have contracted beryllium disease at the Brush Wellman beryllium plant outside Elmore. Numerous others have abnormal blood tests - a sign that they may develop the illness.
Company spokesman Hugh Hanes said he has not seen the proposal but that Brush - the industry leader - supports the plan's concepts. "We would welcome any benefits employees might get," he said.
The plan's outline states that one of the goals is to provide an alternative to state worker's compensation programs, which do not adequately cover beryllium disease. In addition, the plan calls for the President to appoint a task force to study adding other illnesses to the effort.
Cost of the program for beryllium disease is estimated at $11 million per year.
David Navarro, vice president of the United Steelworkers of America, Local 8031, praised energy officials for their efforts.
"It's a major demarcation for the Department of Energy to acknowledge that its activities have poisoned folks," said Mr. Navarro, whose union represents beryllium victims at the former Rocky Flats arms plant in Colorado. "Secretary Richardson has gone further than anyone before."
Blade staff writer Pamela R. Winnick contributed to this report.
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