Sunday, July 18, 1999

Hope prevails among Fernald workers


Payments seem likely, eventually

BY RACHEL MELCER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As word spread that workers at other nuclear weapons production sites likely will receive federal compensation for being exposed to a deadly material, former Fernald employees joined in a thought: me, too.

        They want to be included in a proposal made by President Clinton and announced Thursday by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. They hope it will be expanded, allowing them to claim financial and medical benefits for cancer and other diseases they say they contracted while working at the Crosby Township site during the Cold War.

        “We want more. We want any and all workers that may have been exposed to be taken care of entirely,” said Gene Branham, vice president of the Fernald Atomic Trades and Labor Council. He also is the workers' representative on the Fernald Health Effects Sub committee, which studies the medical effects of uranium and chemical exposures in the area.

        If legislated by Congress, the federal proposal would extend benefits to an estimated 20,000 men and women who were exposed to beryllium while working for private contractors at Department of Energy (DOE) sites nationwide. They were singled out for the program because only that type of exposure can lead to Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD), a debilitating lung disease for which there is no cure.

        It represents a dramatic policy change for DOE, which has spent years denying any responsibility for worker illness.

        At Fernald, workers came in contact with limited amounts of beryllium, with none known to have developed CBD.

        Many suffer from cancers, kidney disease and other ailments that they claim were caused by work exposures to uranium and chemical toxins. But medical science does not necessarily back them up, and several of the diseases, such as lung cancer, have other known causes. That makes their contentions more difficult to prove.

        In 1994, 7,000 Fernald workers settled a lawsuit against DOE and their former employer, private contractor NLO Inc., winning $20 million for a lifelong program to monitor their health and to compensate them for emotional distress.

        Although it was the first victory of its kind and a significant step, it did not lead DOE to accept responsibility for their ailments.

        “We were pioneers, and we brought all this to the attention of the Department of Energy,” said attor ney Stanley Chesley, who represented workers in that case. “This is the same government that fought us tooth and nail on Fernald,” and now it is beginning to turn around.

        “We're clearly going to be involved in this, and we're going to be very aggressive.”

        Heads of the Energy, Labor and Defense departments are studying various types of occupational exposures and illnesses that could be included in Mr. Clinton's proposal.

        In a memorandum issued Thursday, he ordered those departments and others to report on the matter by March 31.

        “I'm sure all of this is going to be reviewed, all of these health-effects issues. And who knows what it will lead to? It's really too early to even speculate on it,” said Mike Jacobs, a DOE spokesman at Fernald.

        But for workers who are stricken with deadly diseases, the decisions cannot come soon enough.

        “I feel to some degree vindicated and some satisfaction. But it is 25 years too late and many, many people have probably lost their lives waiting,” Mr. Branham said.

        A senior DOE official, who did not wish to be identified because the department is not prepared to announce further action yet, said DOE will almost certainly include cancers and diseases other than CBD in future benefits legislation.

        Even if the scientific links between workplace exposures and diseases are unclear, compensation could be approved on the basis that “it's more likely than not” the cause, he said.

        “Secretary Richardson ... heard some workers who believed they had work-related illnesses that weren't being treated” and he wanted to respond to that, the official said. “I'm hoping that the process to look at the extension (beyond beryllium disease) will be an open one, where the workers and the people can be heard very loudly.”

       



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