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Posted at 6:31 p.m. EST Friday, March 30, 2001

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Lawmaker asks Bush to reconsider moving nuclear worker program

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a last-ditch effort, a Kentucky congressman Friday asked President Bush to reconsider giving the Justice Department control of a compensation program for job-sickened nuclear workers.

Cancer victims and people fighting incurable lung diseases caused by Cold War-era work for the government should not have to wait while the Justice Department sets up appeals panels, hires administrative law judges and hires other personnel that already are in place at the Labor Department, Rep. Ed Whitfield told Bush.

The shift ``would be a grave disservice'' to the sick workers, he wrote.

Whitfield, a Republican, represents a district that includes the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

His letter was sent a day after the Office of Management and Budget circulated a draft executive order handing the program over to the Justice Department.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao had asked for such an order, saying her department did not have the right kind of expertise to be in charge of distributing medical coverage and $150,000 payments to some of the workers exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, beryllium or silica.

The Paducah plant is a large government-owned facility, but the compensation program also was intended to help contaminated workers at smaller sites around the country.

Work for the nuclear weapons program was done at mills, foundries and factories. The Energy Department preliminarily identified 317 sites in 37 states where sick workers might qualify for benefits.

In his letter, Whitfield pointed out that the DOE has fielded 16,000 calls from people seeking information about the new program.

The Labor Department handles worker compensation programs that process hundreds of thousands of claims annually, while the Justice Department runs a single program that handles a few hundred each year.

The new program is supposed to be ready to accept applications July 31. ``DOJ would never be in a position to meet that deadline,'' Whitfield said.

The White House said it would have no comment on the draft order.

Whitfield's letter was the latest in a stream of strongly worded appeals from Capitol Hill.

Many demanded that the Labor Department be forced to run the new entitlement program, but some very influential lawmakers pushed in the opposite direction.

The chairmen of both the House and Senate judiciary committees wrote strong letters backing up Chao's contention that her agency was not the one best equipped to run the new program.

The Justice Department ``has been diligent and efficient in its responsibilities'' and ``individuals with claims under the Energy Employees Occupational Compensation Program should be afforded the expertise and efficiency that the Department of Justice can provide by administering their program as well,'' wrote House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.


On the Net:

Justice Department program's claims summary:


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