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Let Labor handle nuclear workers' aid, lawmakers say
Saturday, March 31, 2001
WASHINGTON -- Several lawmakers are fuming about the Bush administration's apparent intent to shift responsibility for a federal program to compensate workers sickened by workplace conditions at nuclear plants during the Cold War.
Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, and others say moving the program to the U.S. Justice Department from the Labor Department could interfere with getting timely aid to ailing workers and family members of deceased workers.
Despite lobbying by Voinovich, Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, and lawmakers from other states, the White House Office of Management and Budget is circulating a draft executive order shifting the program to the Justice Department.
It could not be determined yesterday whether President Bush intends to sign the order. Officials from the Office of Management and Budget declined to comment; the office of Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao did not return calls.
But the draft order signals that Chao may be on the verge of winning her bid to dump responsibility for the program.
Chao says the Justice Department already runs a compensation program for sick uranium miners and therefore is better able to run the new program, which will provide $150,000 lump-sum payments and lifetime health care to potentially thousands of nuclear workers nationwide. Congress established the program last fall, and it is to go into effect July 31.
Among the recipients could be several hundred people at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, which enriched weapons- grade uranium during the Cold War.
Voinovich said the Labor Department already runs a variety of workers' compensation programs. The program for uranium miners is more of an "apology'' initiative, and the Justice Department isn't well-suited to running a formal program, he said.
The uranium-miners program also benefited civilians who were exposed to fallout from nuclear tests.
"While the federal government rearranges the deck chairs, the ship is sinking for a lot of people who served this country with dedication,'' Voinovich said. "We don't have time to figure out which agency can serve them best. . . . Justice will, I think, be overwhelmed, and people won't get the help they need.''
The most notable advocate for putting the program into the Justice Department has been Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hatch, like Chao, says the program for nuclear workers would fit with the uranium- miners assistance.
But critics say the program for uranium miners has been underfunded and poorly run. They say Hatch, the architect of the legislation that created the program, is trying to rescue it by adding the nuclear workers' compensation program to the Justice Department's portfolio.
Strickland said shifting responsibility to the Justice Department now, when the program is supposed to be launched in a couple of months, would hang up assistance.
"This will undoubtedly slow down the process, I think, by months, if
not a year or longer, in getting it going and getting resources to the
people who are sick and dying,'' he said.
Copyright © 2001, The Columbus Dispatch