Originally created 09/27/00

Nuclear-weapons bill faces deadline



Local lawmakers and federal officials scrambled Tuesday to revive near-dead legislation that would compensate sick workers at nuclear-weapons installations such as Savannah River Site.

"We're in sort of a no-man's land right now," said U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., during a telephone interview from Washington. "Several of us who have sites in our districts, we don't want to take no for an answer."

Any move would have to come quickly because the legislation must pass before the new federal fiscal year begins at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

The legislation, attached to the Defense Authorization Act, stalled Monday when House and Senate negotiators could not resolve differences between their versions of the plan.

The Senate already has approved one version of the compensation plan. Its proposal would benefit 4,000 to 6,000 workers during five years, at a cost of about $938 million, according to David Michaels, an assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy.

The House offered a bill that would support compensation but would leave the plan unfunded until more studies of the issue were completed.

Mr. Graham criticized both plans. He called the Senate plan too broad, but he termed the House's failure to provide funding "unacceptable."

"We need legislation this year that appropriates money to start helping to compensate workers," he said. "We need to put together a program that's fair to both the worker and the taxpayer.

"We don't need to study this any more."

Dr. Michaels also criticized the House's proposal.

"We don't think additional studies are needed, and we don't think additional legislation is needed," he said during a telephone interview. "We know more about the health of these workers and what their needs are than any other group of workers in the country."

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is committed to starting a compensation program this year, Dr. Michaels said.

The assistant secretary would not rule out the possibility that the compensation package might be tied to another federal spending bill.

"He's looking at lots of options," Dr. Michaels said of the secretary.

There are about 600,000 current and former workers at nuclear-weapons sites, including about 100,000 at SRS. But it is unknown how many have become sick as a result of their work.

The Senate's plan would provide sick workers compensation for lost wages and medical benefits. Alternatively, workers could opt for a lump-sum payment of $200,000.

The plan would help workers with radiation-induced cancers and employees with illnesses caused by beryllium and other hazardous materials.

The compensation plan, first proposed two years ago, reversed 50 years of government denials that employees at nuclear-weapons plants were sickened by their jobs.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.