Aid to beryllium victims marks `new era' in U.S.
July 16, 1999
WASHINGTON - The Clinton administration yesterday said a new era of justice has begun in the way the federal government treats beryllium disease victims and other Cold War casualties.
"The men and women who helped win the Cold War deserve to be recognized and rewarded for their work, not punished through poor health care and bills that they can't pay," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said at a press conference to announce a federal plan to compensate America's beryllium victims, including dozens in the Toledo area.
The White House issued a statement from President Clinton, saying: "The American people believe in fairness, and I am sure that they would find it fair to provide this reasonable compensation to this small group of people who contributed so much to their country's well-being and who now are suffering from this incurable disease."
In addition, President Clinton yesterday ordered an inter-agency study to determine whether the beryllium disease compensation plan should be broadened to include other weapon-related illnesses, such as asbestosis and radiation-induced cancers.
Joining Mr. Richardson were nine members of Congress, including Toledo Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. Several spoke of how the government has failed beryllium workers for years and now has a moral duty to make things right.
In March, The Blade began a six-day series detailing the hazards of beryllium and how the government and beryllium industry repeatedly sacrificed workers' lives for the production of the metal, which has been used in nuclear bombs and other weapons since World War II. Among the series' findings: Over the last five decades, government and industry officials knowingly allowed thousands of workers to be exposed to levels of toxic beryllium dust above the federal safety limit.
As a result, dozens of workers contracted beryllium disease, and some died.
The articles have sparked numerous reforms and reactions, including an investigation by the General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm.
The announcement on beryllium was called historic by several congressmen. The plan marks the first time the Energy Department, which is responsible for maintaining the nuclear weapon arsenal, has publicly acknowledged fault in illnesses among its contract workers.
Said Secretary Richardson: "In the past, the department has traditionally opposed claims of occupational illness. That is stopping today."
The compensation plan, he said, "signals a new era in the Department of Energy in the treatment of its workers."
U.S. Rep. Ron Klink, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said many are "anxious to right the wrongs of the past and give these Cold War Warriors the compensation they so deeply deserve."
Secretary Richardson said that the compensation effort initially will focus only on those harmed by beryllium, a strong, lightweight material that produces a toxic dust when manufactured or machined. Those who are exposed often develop a chronic, often-fatal lung illness.
All federal contract employees with beryllium disease would be eligible for benefits, as would employees of companies that have supplied beryllium products to the government, such as Cleveland-based Brush Wellman, Inc. At least 53 current or former workers have contracted beryllium disease at Brush's plant outside Elmore, 20 miles southeast of Toledo.
Also covered under the plan: beryllium workers with abnormal blood tests, an early indicator of the disease. Numerous workers at the Elmore plant show blood abnormalities.
Under the plan, victims would be allowed access to the same kinds of benefits - medical costs and lost wages, for example - available to federal employees. Families of deceased victims would be provided survivors' benefits and reimbursement for burial expenses.
Some victims would have the option of a single, lump-sum benefit of $100,000.
The plan, energy officials said, will be an alternative to state workers' compensation programs, many of which do not adequately address beryllium disease. And like other workers' compensation programs, workers with claims would be barred from suing the government.
Cost of the federal program was estimated at $13 million per year.
How much it would help victims might depend on the stage of their illness and the state in which they live. But Dr. David Michaels, assistant energy secretary for environment, safety, and health, said that all beryllium victims likely would receive more compensation under this plan, including former Brush Wellman workers in the Toledo area.
Dr. Michaels has credited The Blade series for focusing the Energy Department on beryllium contract workers and for sparking interest by members of Congress. Congresswoman Kaptur has said the articles created congressional interest in the compensation idea. She added yesterday that she wanted to "acknowledge my hometown paper, the Toledo Blade, for its work on highlighting this issue."
Miss Kaptur said the plan is needed because state laws have done little to help beryllium victims. "In fact, in Ohio, it took a Supreme Court decision this December for victims to be given any significant compensation," she said.
Secretary Richardson said the motive for compensating victims originated last year, when he visited the Oak Ridge nuclear weapon plant in Tennessee and talked to ill workers there.
"I heard their concerns and came away convinced that we need to right this wrong," he said.
Nationwide, an estimated 1,200 beryllium disease cases have been diagnosed since the 1940s. About 200 have occurred at private plants supplying the government with beryllium for weapons. Dozens of other cases have been discovered at Energy Department nuclear weapon sites, such as Oak Ridge and the Rocky Flats facility in Colorado.
The plan is not a done deal: It must be introduced as a bill in Congress and then approved. Miss Kaptur and Pennsylvania Congressman Paul Kanjorski, both Democrats, said that they and others soon will introduce the legislation.
"This is a great plan that I think will meet with strong, bipartisan support in Congress," said Mr. Kanjorski, who has numerous constituents in eastern Pennsylvania with beryllium disease.
Richard Miller, a union policy analyst, wasn't so sure.
He said a bill that addresses only beryllium disease will have difficulty gaining support in Congress because only a few states have beryllium facilities.
"We are going to push to have this plan broadened" to include other weapon-related illnesses, said Mr. Miller, of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union, which represents workers at 11 Energy Department facilities.
President Clinton asked that the study he ordered on expanding the plan be completed by April.
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