Thursday, June 17, 2004

Energy workers' claims inch closer to resolution

Senate acts to facilitate payment

By Greg Wright
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON - Thousands of ailing nuclear-weapons workers who have waited years for government compensation checks got a step closer Wednesday to relief.

The Senate passed legislation from Sens. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to transfer a controversial energy workers' compensation program to the Labor Department.

The Energy Department received more than 24,300 claims as of June 4 but has helped only four Cold War-era bomb-plant employees get workers' compensation checks. Bunning, Bingaman and a bipartisan group of senators said the move makes sense because the Labor Department has more staff and experience on workers' compensation issues.

The Labor Department "will move through this backlog pretty quickly, and I think people will see payments," said Richard Miller, policy analyst at the Government Accountability Project.

But the move might never happen. The Bush administration is against the Bunning-Bingaman amendment because it says the two departments still must consult to finish claims. The administration may try to kill the legislation when Senate and House lawmakers craft a compromise defense spending bill later this year, Bunning spokesman Mike Reynard said.

In 2000 Congress created a two-prong program to help the workers. The Energy Department would help get workers' compensation checks from states. And the Labor Department would give eligible workers a $150,000 lump sum and cover medical bills.

As of June 4, the Labor Department had processed 60 percent of 55,888 claims it received. But some sick workers still complain they have hit roadblocks.

Vina Colley, 56, of McDermott, Ohio, says she developed tumors, breathing problems and an immune deficiency because of her work as an electrician at the Portsmouth plant about 25 miles away.

Colley filed claims with both departments after 2000 but said she still has not been paid.

"Labor's already involved in it, and it's not working," she said.

Thousands of workers claim they contracted cancer, lung diseases and other illnesses from exposure to radiation and toxic chemicals at nuclear-weapons plants in Tennessee, Ohio, Iowa, Kentucky and other states.

The Senate voted by voice Wednesday to move the program to Labor. The legislation was added to a $422 billion defense bill the Senate is working on this week.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said Congress has a "moral obligation to help workers who sacrificed their health to protect the nation." Voinovich represents more than 1,300 sick workers from the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant near Piketon, Feed Materials Production Center at Fernald, and Mound Plant in Miamisburg.

"I believe these men and woman have paid a high price for our freedom," Voinovich said.

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