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  • Piketon workers aid OK'd by Senate

    Friday, June 9, 2000

    Jonathan Riskind
    Dispatch Washington Bureau

    WASHINGTON -- Piketon uranium-enrichment plant employees harmed by deadly radiation in their workplace could get as much as $200,000 plus health benefits for life under a landmark deal approved yesterday by the U.S. Senate.

    Under provisions of the agreement, hundreds of current and former workers at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant -- and hundreds more at other nuclear facilities nationwide -- would be compensated for exposure to hazardous materials during the Cold War.

    The deal was added -- without a separate vote -- to a defense authorization bill whose passage is considered a virtual certainty. Proponents of the compensation package are cautiously optimistic that it will remain intact when the bill emerges from a conference committee that will work out differences between the House and Senate versions.

    Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, warned that final victory is not guaranteed. House members now must be persuaded that aiding "civilian victims of the Cold War'' is a federal priority and responsibility.

    "We're talking about people who have lost their lives, people who are seriously ill, who have been treated in a way you would not want anyone to be treated,'' he said. "We finally have admitted we (the U.S. government) were derelict. This program and the funding of it should take the highest priority.''

    There is no cost estimate for the plan. A less-ambitious Clinton administration proposal carried a $500 million price tag and would have affected an estimated 3,000 people.

    Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson has acknowledged that nuclear workers at Energy Department sites nationwide toiled under dangerous conditions that exposed them to uranium, plutonium and a host of other materials that led to illnesses such as cancer.

    The Piketon plants for decades was among the sites singled out as places with inadequate worker protection.

    Voinovich, who crafted a more- expansive compensation proposal, was one of the main architects of yesterday's compromise. Getting it into a defense bill was crucial. In an election year, though not much is likely to get through Congress, such a bill is almost sure to pass.

    Richardson urged Congress to quickly pass legislation that can be sent to the president.

    "With the adoption of this workers' compensation amendment, the Senate today furthered efforts to right the wrongs of the Cold War and get sick workers and their survivors the help they have long deserved,'' he said.

    While lauding Voinovich and others who backed the bill, including Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, worker advocates called the legislation an inadequate compromise.

    Although the measure would provide federal payments for workers exposed to radiation and beryllium, a toxic material used in some stages of nuclear production, those exposed to other harmful chemicals are relegated to requesting state workers' compensation benefits. Advocates question whether the state system can handle claims that are sometimes decades old and related to nuclear-site exposures that often are not well-documented.

    "To say this is a comprehensive remedy is to perpetrate a cruel hoax,'' said Richard Miller, an attorney for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, which represents workers at the Piketon plant.

    "For those people who do not fall within a beryllium or radiation category, those people will be routed down a blind alley.''

    Herman Potter, a Piketon plant operator for 12 years who is serving as a union safety coordinator, said there is a "bittersweet attitude toward this'' because workers believe chemical exposures were more prevalent but less well-documented than radiation exposures.

    They also are skeptical about whether adequate compensation can be found in state systems.

    "There is a fear this has not gone far enough,'' Potter said.

    At the same time, Miller noted that without the efforts of Voinovich, DeWine and others -- including Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D- Mass., and Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. -- the plan would not have been included in the bill at all.

    That might have killed chances to pass the compensation proposal this year because the House had not included the plan in its version of the defense authorization bill. The legislation covers only Energy Department workers, not Defense Department employees, but attaching the proposal to the defense authorization bill is considered the legislation's best shot this year.

    Voinovich, who wrote the legislation introduced last month in the Senate, favored federal compensation for chemical exposures as well. But some Clinton administration officials and lawmakers thought that would open a Pandora's box of compensation and wanted a more narrowly crafted bill.

    The Clinton administration in April introduced a bill that granted $100,000 payments or health benefits and excluded chemical exposures from federal compensation.

    But Voinovich, DeWine and several other allies in both parties doubled the maximum payments for radiation and beryllium exposure.

    DeWine said that although the proposal does not go as far as he and Voinovich wanted, the legislation approved yesterday "is a fair and reasonable compromise.''

    Once the bill reaches a conference committee, proponents hope to stage one last fight to win federal compensation for chemical exposures.

    But they also worry that it might be tough just to hold on to what they have because some budget- conscious House members might want to cut compensation to radiation victims.

    Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, whose district includes the Piketon plant, said several House members with Energy Department nuclear sites in their districts are lobbying to include the compensation proposal in the final version.

    A Dispatch investigation of past conditions at the Piketon plant revealed that many workers were exposed to radiation, harmful chemicals and toxic materials ranging from asbestos to mercury to fluorides. A recent Energy Department report confirmed those findings.

    The Piketon plant no longer produces weapons-grade uranium. Now run by a privatized federal corporation called USEC, it produces commercial-grade uranium for nuclear-power-plant fuel.


    Copyright 2000, The Columbus Dispatch