Advocates say sick nuclear workers need support

OAK RIDGE, TENNESSEE - Angered by rejected claims for financial help and frustrated by delays, sick nuclear workers are calling for congressional reform of the program that's supposed to help those made ill at the government's Cold War nuclear weapons facilities.

About 60 sick workers and their advocates gathered for a rally at Oak Ridge's Jackson Plaza. Similar rallies were being held at other sites around the country near federal nuclear facilities.

"There's too much death, and there's too much denial," said Janet Michel, a former K-25 worker with autoimmune illnesses. Michel worked to set up the original compensation program a decade ago and pushed for amendments four years ago, but she said more changes are needed.

Harry Williams, of the Coalition for a Healthy Environment, said program workers at the local level try very hard but said the compensation system is "autocratic" at high leadership levels.

"It's still a contentious situation when you file a claim," he said.

The Alliance for Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, which includes the Oak Ridge-based CHE, wants to broaden the criteria that make sick workers or their survivors eligible for compensation. One of those reforms would expand the list of radiation-linked cancers that qualify for payment.

Workers also want to add a cost-of-living clause to payments and expand the program's Special Exposure Cohort, which would automatically make cancer victims eligible for payment if there was uncertainty about their workplace radiation exposures. Currently, many of the claimants have to go through a lengthy - and controversial - process known as "dose reconstruction" to estimate their work-related exposures.

Shelby Hallmark, a U.S. Labor Department official who has overseen the compensation program since its inception, said today nearly $4 billion has been paid out so far - including about $1.4 billion in claims related to the Oak Ridge plants.

The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act was passed by Congress in 2000, but the program itself wasn't implemented until July 2001. By that time, Hallmark said, there already was a backlog of 20,000 claims for Part B - covering cancers caused by workplace radiation exposures and illness associated with beryllium.

In 2004, the Labor Department took over the program's Part E, which was established to help those with illnesses caused by toxic chemicals and other nonradioactive materials. In that situation, Hallmark said, there was a backlog of 25,000 claims.

Those backlogs are essentially gone today, except for the Part E cases at the department's district office in Denver, Hallmark said.

Hallmark said people get upset because some illnesses simply don't fall within the rules of the program established by Congress. If Congress changes those rules, the Labor Department will be happy to carry them out and expand the eligibility.

"We are, in fact, doing an excellent job," he said in telephone interview from Washington, D.C. "We want to be fair and sympathetic. It's hard for the public to realize that we have to make hard decisions and say, 'Widow Jones, we're sorry your husband's condition falls outside the rubric that Congress gave us.' We're not trying to be mean... It's not because there are evil bureaucrats who are too lazy to look at their (cases)."

Glenn Bell, a retired machinist who developed chronic beryllium disease from exposures at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, said worker claims are being wrongly denied. He said he had submitted information that would have supported claims for a number of beryllium workers at Y-12, but it was ignored or put aside.

Bell said about 41,800 claims have been filed on behalf of Oak Ridge workers and only 13,045 have received compensation. "That tells me there's a problem."


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