August 10, 2001
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Payments begin for ill nuclear workers
Friday, August 10, 2001
staff and wire reports
Perhaps as early as today, Tim Gannon will become the nation's first nuclear worker to get a check from the federal government as compensation for his cancer-ravaged body.
Gannon, who worked at the uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio, is slated to receive $150,000 under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act, which took effect last week. The check was sent along with a letter from Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao.
About two years ago the 41-year- old Ironton resident -- who worked at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant for nearly two decades -- learned he has colon cancer. The disease has since spread to his liver, kidney and rectum.
Gannon was a process operator at the plant, which during much of the Cold War manufactured weapons-grade enriched uranium, a key component in making nuclear bombs.
The compensation program -- expected to cost $1.9 billion during the next decade -- covers workers at the sprawling Pike County facility and other nuclear facilities across the nation, including Piketon's sister plant in Paducah, Ky. Workers get compensation and lifetime health benefits if they have certain ailments, which under the law are presumed to have stemmed from their workplace exposure to radiation and other harmful materials.
Gannon is still waiting to find out whether he will receive state workers' compensation benefits to help pay about $100,000 in past medical bills. The federal law mandates that the Energy Department help workers like Gannon pursue state benefits when appropriate, but he and advocates for other workers complain not much aid is yet available.
Gannon was to have been given his check personally by Chao, but the event was canceled because of scheduling problems.
Instead, Chao went to Paducah yesterday to present a $150,000 check to Clara Harding, 78, whose husband, Joe, died more than 20 years ago after exposure to toxic levels of uranium at the Paducah plant.
Harding's knees trembled as she accepted the check.
"I haven't slept in three days, and I was up at 4 a.m. this morning,'' she said. "I'm grateful and relieved. But I'm so tired and sleepy.''
After yesterday's presentation Chao said, "There is no more poignant example of how people can transform their trials into triumphs than the tender story of Joe and Clara Harding.''
Joe Harding was among those who pressed the Energy Department to acknowledge workers were getting sick from exposure to hazardous bomb-making components.
Before he died of cancer in 1980, his bones were found to contain up to 34,000 times the expected concentration of uranium. Yet Harding was denied compensation because official records showed he was exposed to only small levels of radiation.
At a congressional hearing last fall, Harding said in order to pay for her late husband's remaining medical bills she had to sell her house and baby-sit part time.
"It was Clara's moving testimony that tipped the scales in favor of passing the bill,'' Chao said.
The Energy Department has identified 317 sites that employed more than 600,000 people in 37 states, Washington, D.C., the Marshall Islands and Puerto Rico for nuclear weapons-related work.
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