Story Filed: Friday, November 09, 2001 4:25 PM EST
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Labor advocates want more workers on a panel advising on compensation for people who were made sick building the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal. They also say the panel is too closely tied to the Energy Department.
Unless changes are made, the advocates fear not enough people will get compensated.
Carl ``Bubba'' Scarbrough, president of the Atomic Trades and Labor Council at the government's nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., said workers can best understand -- and therefore convey -- the risks and working conditions of their jobs.
``We should be advisers,'' he said. ``For one thing, our heart would be in the right place.''
A law passed by Congress last year required the White House to appoint a panel that reflected ``a balance of scientific, medical and worker perspectives.'' Ten people were selected, including scientists, doctors and engineers. Only one rank-and-file worker, Richard Espinosa, a metal shop steward at the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico, was named.
Espinosa said he feels a sense of responsibility as the only laborer on the panel.
``In ways I feel, maybe not burdened, I feel really proud that I got on the board,'' Espinosa said.
White House spokeswoman Anne Womack defended the makeup of the board.
``We think it's pretty balanced,'' she said. Womack added that one of the doctors on the panel, James Melius, works for a union in New York.
After decades of denials, the government acknowledged two years ago that many workers who helped the Energy Department and its vendors build nuclear weapons during the Cold War probably got sick because of on-the-job exposure.
Congress subsequently passed a law providing medical care and payments of $150,000 to sick workers or their families for exposure to cancer-causing radiation, or silica and beryllium, which cause lung disease.
Many medical records are missing or incomplete, so the panel's primary task is to help determine how much radiation workers were exposed to on the job. If doses can't be estimated, the panel will help decide whether certain workers should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Richard Miller, an analyst for the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based watchdog group, said he's concerned by the fact that three members of the panel are tied to the Energy Department. He said he is not worried about Espinosa's independence from the agency, since he is protected by a union.
Miller said lawmakers called for an ``independent review process'' and recognized Energy Department officials would have a conflict of interest. The legislation prohibited them from writing dose reconstruction guidelines.
``I want people who have absolutely no connection to the Department of Energy on this committee,'' he said.
Panelist Antonio Andrade, who is a radiation health expert at the Energy Department's Los Alamos lab, disagreed. He said people who are familiar with agency facilities are needed on the panel.
``If anything, we bring truth, experience and knowledge about specific situations to the table,'' he said.
Several lawmakers have asked the administration to add Mark Griffon, a health physicist who evaluates risks at nuclear facilities.
``He would have an inclination to be quite supportive of people who have been exposed but also continue to use a scientific basis for making decisions,'' said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., who made his case in a letter to White House Personnel Director Clay Johnson.
Griffon said he received a call from the White House Friday asking him to submit an application.
On the Net:
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health compensation office: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/ocas/default.html
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