AIKEN - A federal official promised sick Savannah River Site workers Thursday that help was coming but asked for patience as the Energy Department creates a compensation program for them.
"This is a start," Assistant Energy Secretary David Michaels told a standing-room-only crowd of about 350 people during a meeting at Aiken Technical College. "You've been very patient. You've waited 50 years. We would like for you to wait a few months longer."
The proposed compensation program is a high priority and could be in place by next summer, Dr. Michaels said.
On Thursday, President Clinton signed an executive order delegating creation of the plan to specific federal agencies, the assistant secretary said.
The news drew applause from the crowd, but many people expressed concern about how help would be administered after more than five decades of government denials that nuclear-weapons workers were harmed by their jobs.
Repeatedly, current and former SRS workers - some of whom used canes or wheeled oxygen bottles behind them - spoke of being exposed to radiation or dangerous materials at the federal nuclear-weapons site, then being stonewalled when they asked for their medical records or assistance.
"I have had nothing from them, no help at all," said Williston resident Henry Holden, a carpenter who worked at the site for a total of eight years. He has developed throat cancer and asbestosis, a lung disease caused by exposure to the fiber asbestos.
"It cost me everything I had when I had to have this," Mr. Holden said of his medical treatment. "I had to refinance my house and everything else. If I get 50 cents, it's more than I've gotten from any of them."
Thursday's meeting was the latest held by Dr. Michaels to explain the proposed program, created only two months ago.
After contentious debate, Congress passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act in October. Under the act, the president has until March 15 to propose the types and amounts of compensation to be provided sick workers.
If Congress does not act on the president's proposal by July 31, then some workers - specifically, those with radiation-induced cancers or illnesses caused by the toxic metal beryllium - would be eligible for single payments of $150,000, plus medical benefits.
President Clinton plans to submit his proposal to Congress by Jan. 1, Dr. Michaels said Thursday. The Energy Department official estimated the program could cost $1.5 billion to $1.9 billion over 10 years.
The Energy Department has said the program will help 4,000 to 6,000 workers. It is undetermined how many of those employees will come from SRS, Dr. Michaels said.
Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.