Oct 25, 2007

Senators vow action on aid program for nuke workers

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Video of the HELP Committee hearing is available here. Fast forward through the first 16 minutes and 50 seconds, it is just a title screen.

By Laura Frank, Rocky Mountain News

October 24, 2007

WASHINGTON - Members of a power-packed U.S. Senate committee said Tuesday that they would find ways to reform the federal program to compensate ill nuclear weapons workers, including those from Rocky Flats.

A leading national advocate for the workers, Terrie Barrie, of Craig, said she was encouraged by the hearing, the first in a series to be held before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"The senators were really on top of the problems," Barrie said. "I don't think they were just giving lip service."

Allard leans on official

Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard was one of the toughest questioners during the hearing. He took John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health, to task when Howard suggested that he didn't know what changes might be needed in the law governing the compensation program. NIOSH helps run the program.

With Allard's prodding, Howard touched on what could become the centerpiece of potential reform: setting deadlines for the government to reach conclusions on which workers deserve compensation.

Ill nuclear workers from Rocky Flats and other U.S. weapons production and testing sites wait an average of three years for the government to determine whether contamination likely caused their diseases and whether they should be compensated. One in 10 Rocky Flats workers whose cases eventually qualified for compensation died before their cases were completed, the Rocky Mountain News reported earlier this year.

The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program gives $150,000, medical coverage and lost wages to ill workers or their survivors if they can prove a link between the ailments and exposures.

Colorado cases cited

The plight of Rocky Flats workers came up several times as an example of how the program is broken. Rocky Flats workers applied in February 2005 for streamlined compensation, which is available when records are missing or too incomplete to use in figuring out how big a dose of radiation a worker received.

Government scientists took more than 800 days to conclude in June that only a small portion of Rocky Flats workers deserved the streamlined status. The rest must go through the years-long process of proving their individual radiation doses.

"That seems to me like anything but a speedy process," Allard said during the hearing.

Dr. James Melius, a member of a White House advisory board that monitors the program, suggested during the hearing that a deadline could be imposed. Compensation would be automatic for workers with certain illnesses if no decision is made on calculating does or granting streamlined status within a set time.

"They need incentive," Melius said of the program's overseers. "There's no reason dose reconstruction should take more than a year to complete."

Claimants frustrated

Shelby Hallmark, who oversees the program for the U.S. Department of Labor, defended it. Hallmark told lawmakers about two cases this month in which dying claimants were rushed their money just days before they died. But he did acknowledge that most claimants had to wait too long.

"In this arena, we haven't been as successful as we would have liked," he said, adding that he planned to increase staff from 525 full-time positions to nearly 600.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, also testified, criticizing the complexity and lack of quality control in the program he and other lawmakers created to help the ill workers.

"None of us intended the program to be this unforgiving," Reid said.

During the hearing, Malcolm Nelson, one of the program's ombudsmen, testified that claimants are fed up with the program. And Ken Silver, an environmental health professor at East Tennessee State University who has studied ill workers, said the government was overlooking key records that could help prove workers' exposures.

He said several workers who helped push for the program seven years ago still had not been compensated, despite documented exposures, assistance from their congressional representatives and support from nationally known health experts.

Silver asked what has become of hundreds of claimants who did not have access to such help.

After the hearing, Barrie said she hoped the organization she helped found, the Alliance of Nuclear Workers Advocacy Groups, could persuade Congress to take action on reforming the program soon.

"I'm pushing for something now," she said. "After seeing (lawmakers) at the hearing, I don't think it's going to be that difficult."

Seeking solutions

• Tuesday: Lawmakers pledged to find ways to improve the federal program to compensate ill nuclear weapons workers, including those from the now-demolished Rocky Flats plant northwest of Denver. Top suggestions included setting deadlines for decisions that can now drag on for years.

• Next: More hearings are expected. Meanwhile, Rocky Flats workers are trying to appeal a decision that denies automatic compensation for most of them who have or will develop radiation-related cancers.


Anonymous said...

Nothing but silence from Domenici?

Anonymous said...

Yet another program completely mis-managed by DOE bureaucrats.

Anonymous said...


Perhaps you have not heard, but Dominici is basically retired-in-place for the next 15 months until he formally retires. He is suffering from the early symptoms of dementia caused by frontotemporal lobar degeneration.

So, yes, nothing but silence from Domenici from now on.

Anonymous said...

Silence from the workforce, then and now, is the problem. For every one that speaks out, a thousand stay quiet, and a hundred more actively collaborate with management to quiet the few that speak out. But come payout time, then they all line with hand extended. It's always been that way. Now's no different.

Anonymous said...

Not everyone was told what they were being exposed to.

Not everyone wants the money.

Probably all of them would pass on the "payout" in exchange for having their health back, or even some medical help before it is too late and they are gone forever.

Anonymous said...

Remember that there is a war on and we need all the money for that.

Anonymous said...

What was the excuse before the war?

Anonymous said...

If this money had been earmarked for Halliburton, you can be sure the government would be shoveling into their arms as quickly as they could.

Anonymous said...

A key fiscal feature of this program is that it comes from "direct spending," a trust fund maintained by the US Treasury to pay the claims of uranium miners, downwinders and nuclear workers. That is how "entitlement programs" are managed.

It does not come from the annual federal budget.

So, regardless of one's views on the war in Iraq, this money is not in competition with the Pentagon's budget.

Anonymous said...

PARADE magazine,

Catching up on my reading, I read this lately:

Who Gets YOUR Money?

In the 2006 fiscal year, the U.S. government spent more than $415
Billion on contracts with 176,172 companies and entities. About
one-quarter of that total -- $100 billion -- went to only six companies.
Who were the big winners? Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman,
General Dynamics, Raytheon and KBR (formerly part of Halliburton). All
Do the majority of their government business with the Department of
Defense. What's more, less than %40 of the contracts that went to these
Companies were awarded in full and open competition.

I Believe the K in KSL is for Kellogg. Who’s company name will be the on the list next?

Anonymous said...

KSL stands for KBR - Shaw - LATA, and KBR is Kellogg, Brown and Root.