Originally created 11/18/99

SRS workers must wait for compensation ruling



Savannah River Site employees who believe their work made them sick must wait until March to find out whether the federal government might compensate them for their illnesses.

U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced Wednesday that the Clinton administration was introducing legislation that would compensate some workers at nuclear-weapons sites for job-related illnesses.

But the legislation would help only three limited groups of workers: an estimated 1,000 or more who have Chronic Beryllium Disease; about 200 workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky; and about 55 at Energy Department facilities in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Other workers must wait until March, when the National Economic Council concludes a study of whether the government should compensate workers at additional sites for other, possibly job-related illnesses. Mr. Richardson assured those workers Wednesday that he wasn't abandoning them.

"I know there are some who feel this legislation doesn't go far enough," he said during a press conference in Washington. "Bear in mind that my announcement today is not the end of the story."

A small number of SRS workers did work with beryllium, a metal that can cause a permanent, sometimes fatal scarring of the lungs.

A screening program for former SRS construction workers has found at least two workers who tested positive for beryllium exposure.

But thousands of SRS employees have worked in areas where they could have been exposed to a host of hazardous materials, ranging from radioactive plutonium to asbestos.

To determine whether those materials might have sickened workers at SRS and other sites, the National Economic Council is researching completed studies of workers' health at those sites and monitoring ongoing medical screening programs for those sites' workers, said David Michaels, an Energy Department assistant secretary in charge of health and safety.

The council also is talking to labor unions and corporate doctors at the sites and holding public and private meetings with workers, Dr. Michaels said.

The legislation introduced Wednesday would pay victims of berylliosis for lost wages, medical costs and job retraining expenses. Workers, or their survivors, also have the option of receiving a single payment of $100,000.

Workers at Paducah, where some employees were exposed to plutonium and other radioactive materials, would be eligible for single payments of $100,000, as would the Oak Ridge workers.

Dr. Michaels estimated the legislation would cost the government from $30 million to $40 million annually, at least during its first few years. He said he did not know when Congress would vote on the bill.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.