Tuesday, March 31, 2009

New Proposal Would Help Sick Nuclear Workers

Mar 31, 2009 2:39 PM

DENVER (Map, News) - A Colorado senator is taking another crack at helping sick nuclear workers who say they were poisoned from their jobs at Cold War-era nuclear weapons sites.

But the bill introduced Tuesday by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall expected to cost $2 billion, and with few federal dollars to go around it's unclear whether the long-proposed idea will succeed.

Udall insists it's time to revive attempts to cut red tape for thousands of people sickened after working at nuclear sites such as Rocky Flats northwest of Denver, which made plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads until it was closed almost 20 years ago.

"It's a new time, and there's a new focus on doing the right thing here," Udall told reporters when asked whether the proposal he'd brought unsuccessfully while in the House had a shot.

Udall's proposal would lessen the burden for sick workers to prove their cancers were caused by work at the sites, instead forcing the government to defend claims. Estimates say the changes could cost $2 billion.

Families of sick nuclear workers complain that despite federal promises to assist them, victims face too many roadblocks trying to prove their claims. Some 167,000 claims have been filed to the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, most of them unpaid or still pending.

"It was just on and on and on, and it seemed to be never-ending," said Kathy Wolf, whose husband Charlie worked at Rocky Flats and died of brain cancer.

Kathy Wolf is an engineer who also worked at Rocky Flats, though she hasn't gotten sick. She told reporters Tuesday that getting money from the program requires too much from sick workers.

For example, she said, workers are asked to prove levels of exposure or give detailed lists of what they touched over the years, something workers themselves may not have known on classified projects.

"Think about the poor widow who had no clue because of the secrecy [about] what her spouse was doing," Kathy Wolf said.

Similar proposals to speed payment to sick workers, though, have stalled for years. Bills were pushed unsuccessfully by former Colorado Sens. Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard, and several congressional hearings have been held on the problem. Congress moved the fund from the Department of Energy to the Department of Labor in 2004, but worker complaints persist.

Udall and other proponents are hoping the new administration and fresh plea for justice will improve the bill's chances.

"You're talking about a group of workers who are really Cold War veterans. They defended our nation," said Marissa Padilla, spokeswoman for Democratic New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, cousin to Mark Udall and a co-sponsor of the bill.

Another attempt to reform the payouts to nuclear workers is also likely this year in the House. Despite years of failure, Mark Udall seemed optimistic Tuesday that this would be the year the nuclear payout system is finally reformed.

"It's time to act," he said. "Enough is enough."


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