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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

REMARKS OF U.S. REP. ED WHITFIELD

BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON IMMIGRATION & CLAIMS

September 21, 2000

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I appreciate the opportunity to appear in support of legislation to compensate Department of Energy contract and vendor employees who have or will suffer work-related illnesses due to exposure to beryllium, silica, radiation and other hazardous materials.

As the sponsor of my own bill on this subject, I am anxious to do whatever I can to insure final approval of a compensation plan for these workers before we adjourn for the year. Anything less would be a gross miscarriage of justice.

My direct involvement in this issue began last August, when a series of WASHINGTON POST investigative reports revealed that workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in my District were unknowingly exposed to plutonium and other highly radioactive metals for over twenty years as they enriched uranium to sustain America's Cold War nuclear arsenal.

It was those reports and the follow-on investigations by the Department of Energy which prompted Secretary Richardson's initial proposal to establish a federal compensation system for workers at the Paducah Plant who developed specific cancers related to radiation. Those same reports prompted the Secretary's acknowledgment that uranium workers were not properly protected until at least 1990 when new safeguards were put in place. To further address the situation, the Secretary proposed an expanded medical monitoring program for the workers at all three diffusion plants-a program that is still ongoing.

Later today, you will hear from one of my constituents, Mrs. Clara Harding. Clara is the widow of Joe Harding who worked at the Paducah Plant for 18 years and who died of cancer in 1980. For nine years, Joe's claims that his illnesses resulted from radiation exposure were challenged by the contractors who operated the Paducah Plant for DOE and by DOE itself. As a matter of fact, a 1981 DOE study attributed Mr. Harding's death to a combination of smoking and eating country ham. And yet, in 1983, twelve years after Mr. Harding had been discharged from the Plant, a test performed on his remains proved that his body still contained uranium levels up to 133 times higher than is normally found in bones. Because uranium is slowly purged by the body over time, the levels in Mr. Harding's bones would have been even higher during the time he was employed.

And how was Mr. Harding compensated? He was denied a disability pension by the contractors and he lost his medical insurance. Clara's efforts to reclaim the pension were opposed by lawyers for the contractor. She settled her claim for $12,000.

Data at the Paducah Plant about who was exposed and to what degree is sketchy at best. DOE audits confirm extensive problems with monitoring programs and equipment. Formal investigations by DOE inspectors cited numerous weaknesses in environmental programs and criticized federal managers and cleanup contractors for a "lack of discipline, formality and oversight" in the plant's management of radiation risks. Immediate upgrades in safety practices, including enhanced training for workers, were ordered.

Since my election to Congress nearly six years ago, I have dedicated myself to addressing the numerous problems relating to the operation, clean-up, and long-term viability of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. But no issue is as important to me as the safety of the men and women who work there and the need to compensate those who have or will suffer illnesses directly attributable to the work they performed to sustain us through the Cold War.

Federal employees are eligible for compensation under the provisions of the Federal Employees Compensation Act. But workers performing the same job for the government-chosen contractor at the 57 DOE sites throughout the country must rely solely on state workers compensation programs. Compensation levels under these state programs are historically low and claims can take years to process.

I realize there are those who would simply like to study this matter further rather than moving ahead with the compensation program as passed by the Senate. I also realize there are some who question the costs associated with the establishment of a new federal entitlement program.

But I would remind the Members of the Subcommittee that our government has acknowledged that radiation exposure at DOE nuclear plants is causing illness among the employees. In the cases of the gaseous diffusions plants, workers were exposed without their knowledge, and the medical monitoring results thus far confirm that employees at Paducah, Portsmouth and Oak Ridge are suffering from work-related illnesses stemming from the uranium enrichment process.

We owe it to these workers and their survivors throughout the DOE complex to try and provide them a fair level of compensation to combat illnesses resulting from their service to our country. No amount of money can compensate a person or loved one for a protracted illness or death, but the least we can do is try and cover long-term health care costs, which is clearly the most important benefit we can provide. A $100,000 lump-sum payment might be an acceptable option for a surviving relative who is not ill and has no medical expenses. But for the sick worker who may have been forced to leave his or her job due to work-related illness, a wage-based option plus medical expenses is the only fair alternative.

I urge the Subcommittee to give these sick workers or their families a meaningful compensation package that acknowledges the damage done and treats their claims in a timely and equitable manner by a government agency that has experience in processing these types of claims. They earned it through their hard work and they earned it through their sacrifice.

My constituents don't understand jurisdictional problems and they don't understand why their government seems reluctant to compensate them for illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous materials they had no knowledge of or control over. This is not some abstract problem. This effects hundreds of families with significant health problems. The government must assume its responsibility.

I urge your immediate approval of a substantive compensation program that expedites the claims process, covers health care expenses, and allows claimants the right to appeal any denial. It 's the responsible thing to do and it's the right thing to do.

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