Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Testimony of

Dr. David Michaels, Ph.D, MPH

Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health

U.S. Department of Energy

before the

Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims

Committee on the Judiciary

September 21, 2000

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the Administration's views on legislation before the Committee to compensate current and former workers in the Nation's nuclear weapons complex who have become ill due to hazardous workplace exposures unique to the production of nuclear weapons (H.R. 675, H.R. 3418, H.R. 4263 and H.R. 4398). This is an issue that has been discussed and debated for many years. Now it is time to act to take care of the men and women whose courage and hard work brought us victory in the Cold War.

In April of this year, the Administration announced a proposal for legislation to compensate certain former and current DOE contract workers. Subsequently, a program based on the principles in this proposal was adopted as Title XXXV of S. 2549, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001, which was subsequently incorporated into the Senate version of H.R. 4205. I will focus my remarks today on this amendment.

The Administration strongly supports legislation that would provide compensation for workers exposed to radiation or beryllium. The men and women who worked for the Department of Energy and served our Nation in the nuclear weapons industries over the last 50 years labored under difficult and dangerous conditions, exposed to some of the most hazardous materials known to mankind. These workers should not have to wait to be compensated. It is time for Congress to act to ensure that they get the help they have long deserved. Further, the Administration believes that eligible workers should be guaranteed compensation, and therefore agrees that program funding should be mandatory. It is our hope that Congress completes action this year.

Need for Legislative Action

For more than 60 years, the Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies operated a massive and extensive industrial enterprise to build and test nuclear weapons. DOE has owned, and its contractors have operated, a nationwide network of heavy industrial plants and research facilities involved in every aspect of weapons production -- ranging from the refining of raw materials to the testing of the bombs, and, ultimately, to weapons stockpile management and environmental cleanup made necessary by nuclear production and testing. Also, as recently highlighted in the media, before the federal facilities were constructed to do this work, the government contracted with private corporations to process nuclear weapons materials. It has been estimated that, since 1949, the United States has spent $5.5 trillion dollars on U.S. nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs and that more than 600,000 workers were involved in the construction, maintenance, operations, and scientific activities carried out at DOE-owned facilities. We know that many of these workers faced serious hazards that today's safety regulations protect against. We know that, largely because of national security concerns, many workers were not adequately informed of the health risks they faced. We have evidence that worker safety issues sometimes took second place to the production goals of the nuclear weapons program. There is no longer any doubt that there are workers -- at both government-owned and private facilities -- who were made sick by workplace exposures to beryllium and radiation unique to atomic weapons production, and it is the clear policy of this Administration that it is the Government's responsibility to take care of and compensate these workers suffering from cancer and beryllium disease as a result of these exposures.

Wearing overalls as their uniforms, these workers faithfully served the Nation in the Cold War. They faced risk to their health, and many became very sick. But since most of DOE's workers were employed by private contractors who operated the Department's weapons plants, these workers are not eligible for federal civilian or military disability benefits.

We have found that DOE contract workers with occupational illnesses can have a difficult time receiving compensation at the state level. It is not always readily apparent that occupational illnesses, especially those with long latency periods such as cancer or lung disease, are directly related to workplace exposures. And because diseases can have long latency periods before workers become disabled or need medical care, illnesses may not be compensable under state workers' compensation programs. This problem has been exacerbated by the Department's former policy -- a policy that has recently been changed by Secretary Richardson -- of actively opposing claims and not encouraging its contractors to support the claims of workers with occupational illness who sought state benefits. Finally, adequate records are not always available to establish a link between an occupational exposure and a disease.

Summary of Administration Action

In a historic announcement in July 1999, Secretary Richardson, joined by Members of Congress, announced that the Administration would propose legislation to provide compensation for victims of beryllium disease. A separate provision to compensate certain workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant was included because workers there had been exposed to radioactive materials without their full knowledge or adequate protections and monitoring -- and, as a result, faced risk to their health. This proposal was the first recognition by the federal government that workers who contracted illnesses from exposures in the nuclear weapons complex should be compensated for their illnesses. The Administration proposal was subsequently introduced in the Congress as H.R. 3418 and S. 1954.

At the same time, President Clinton issued a memorandum to the Secretaries of Defense, Labor, and Energy, the Attorney General, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy directing an interagency review to determine whether other illnesses warranted inclusion in this program and how this should be accomplished.

The Administration undertook a number of activities to support that effort. First, the National Economic Council assembled an interagency panel of experts in the fields of public and occupational health to review and assess available scientific evidence to determine if there are occupational illnesses contracted by current and former contract DOE workers from exposures to occupational hazards unique to nuclear weapons production. The panel concluded that there is evidence that suggests that some current and former contractor workers at DOE nuclear weapons production facilities may be at increased risk of illness from occupational exposures to ionizing radiation and other hazards associated with the production of nuclear weapons. Some studies indicate an increased risk of adverse health outcomes with increased levels of exposure to ionizing radiation.

The second task directed by the President was to review state workers' compensation programs for DOE contract workers and evaluate how they compare with the Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA) program. Among the working group findings:

. There are potentially large disparities among states and between states and the FECA system in wage replacement.

. Differences exist in how states define eligibility for compensation, such as statute of limitation provisions. Many occupational diseases, such as some cancers, manifest years after exposure to the hazardous agent. This "latency" problem can present an insurmountable barrier to a worker receiving compensation in a state with particular statutes of limitations.

. Many workers who believe they have an occupational illness do not file claims, making it difficult to rely solely on existing data or currently reported cases to fully characterize the degree to which workers with occupational illnesses in the DOE workforce are eligible for and receiving workers' compensation benefits. In response to a DOE-sponsored survey questionnaire, workers gave a variety of reasons for not filing, including: not believing they could establish the work-relatedness of their illness; not knowing eligibility rules; pursuing claims under other benefits systems such as disability insurance and Medicare; and believing that the company discouraged them from filing.

Another important activity was the conduct of public meetings at several of our major DOE sites to hear directly from current and former workers. To date, we have held meetings in: Paducah, Kentucky; Piketon, Ohio, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Rocky Flats, Colorado; Hanford, Washington; Nevada Test Site, Nevada; and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Approximately 2,300 current and retired workers and/or their family members attended the meetings. More than 330 shared their stories, including many of the witnesses here today.

We heard from DOE contractor employees who are proud of the work they have done to protect our national security. Most have no regrets about their work, but some feel betrayed that the Government may have made them sick through needless exposures to the wide variety of hazards found at DOE facilities. We saw many workers who are very ill, yet courageously gave testimonies on their work, health, and workers' compensation histories. We heard from workers who arrived at the meetings with oxygen tanks. We heard from many workers who reported diagnoses of cancers, including kidney, bone, lymphomas, multiple myelomas, and leukemias. Consistent with the results of the survey described above, the vast majority of workers told us that they would not file for workers' compensation because they believed that claims would be routinely denied.

Based on these activities, on April 12 of this year Secretary Richardson announced that the Administration would expand its original proposal. The expanded Administration proposal would compensate workers with a range of work-related illnesses from beryllium and radiation exposure throughout the Energy Department's nuclear weapons complex. In addition, the program for Paducah workers would be expanded to include workers from all three gaseous diffusion plants. Finally, the Department would establish an Office of Worker Advocacy within the Office of Environment, Safety and Health to help workers with illnesses not specifically addressed in the legislative proposal obtain state workers' compensation benefits. This Office has been established and is already working closely with state offices to compensate workers whose illnesses were clearly identified as being work-related by occupational physicians. In addition, Secretary Richardson has directed all DOE contractors to reverse its policy of opposing the valid claims made by these workers.

Mr. Chairman, that concludes my testimony. I commend the Subcommittee for holding this important hearing and urge the Congress to continue to act expeditiously to put a program in place this year. These men and women have suffered for many years and waited a long time for justice. To delay further would be a great disservice both to them and also to the government which now recognizes its responsibilities and obligations. I would be pleased to answer any questions from the Subcommittee members.



NEWSLETTER
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list