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Posted at 6:52 p.m. EST Thursday, January 11, 2001

Monday ~ Tuesday ~ Wednesday ~ Thursday ~ Friday ~ Saturday ~ Sunday

Government lists bomb factories where sickened workers might get help

With BC-OH--Weapons Plants-List.
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government on Thursday named hundreds of mills, foundries and factories that did nuclear weapons work during the Cold War, a step toward identifying workers who might qualify for compensation because they became ill from on-the-job exposure.

Ohio had 37 sites on the list.

Now that the list is being published in the Federal Register, ``Workers need to contact us,'' said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.

``The burden of proof is on the government, not the worker. We will be open and candid this time, not like in the past.''

The department examined records going back 60 years in an attempt to document every place that handled the deadly metal beryllium or radioactive materials for the Cold War bomb-making effort.

Its preliminary list included 317 sites in 37 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Marshall Islands.

Some were government-owned, but most were private companies that did business for the Energy Department or the Atomic Energy Commission.

David Michaels, the department's top health official, cautioned that some of the 317 sites played very minor roles in the history of weapons production.

While Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. in St. Louis processed thousands of tons of uranium, he said, Star Cutter Corp. in Farmington, Mich., had only five pieces of uranium on site for one day, while testing a special saw it had made.

Ailing workers and the families of many dead workers spent years pushing the government to acknowledge causing illnesses by exposing weapons plant employees to high levels of radiation or by failing to clean up radioactive contamination.

Some sick workers said they could not get adequate care because the substances they were exposed to were considered classified information. Doctors were given exposure records with essential information blacked out.

As recently as President Clinton's first term, the government routinely fought worker compensation claims from nuclear factory workers.

``We failed to take care of workers that got sick from exposure,'' said Richardson, who said he was proud to have changed government policy ``to settle the score with our workers.''

Under a program Congress approved last year, employees of facilities doing Energy Department work who contracted cancer as a result of radiation exposure, plus those who contracted a lung disease from beryllium or silica, are supposed to get government-paid medical care plus $150,000.

If the government sticks to its schedule for getting a system in place, the first checks should go out later this year.

Many of the privately owned sites haven't done Energy Department work in decades.

Yet to be decided is how the compensation program will decide which people from such sites got sick because of work done for the government

``This is a very sensitive area,'' said activist Rchard Miller. ``There are places where the DOE had no contract for, for instance, beryllium after a certain date, or a mill didn't roll uranium after a certain date, but the buildings remained contaminated.

``People worked in hot' buildings, but they didn't actually do work for the weapons program,'' he said. ``It's an issue. The cutoff dates are going to matter.''

Publishing further information on each site's known history of government work is something Richardson's team hopes to complete before Jan. 20, when the Bush administration takes over.

Bob Schaeffer of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability called the weapons plant inventory ``a major step in recognizing the geographic scope of contamination.''

But, he complained, ``DOE is still acting as if the contamination stopped at the fence line. Thousands of neighbors and people who lived in nearby communities also are affected by the contamination from the plants. Addressing their needs must be the next step.''

Richardson said the next step for Congress should be to offer sick workers a bigger benefit.

He sent proposed legislation to Capitol Hill suggesting the program be amended to give sick workers a choice of $150,000 or reimbursement for lost wages. That would make a big difference for exposed workers who got sick while still relatively young.

The proposal immediately won some bipartisan support.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Rep. Tom Udallh, D-N.M., quickly pledged to try to get the change approved by Congress.

``Offering two different payment options and establishing a process for arbitration is certainly welcome and more than fair,'' Udall said.

``The challenges our nation faces are bigger than partisan politics and when we can put those disputes aside and work together then the American people are better served,'' Voinovich said.

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