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Published: Thursday, 11/16/2000

Half a loaf shy?

In approving a $1.9 billion program to compensate nuclear weapons workers sickened on the job, Congress and President Clinton have produced a measure of justice for 600,000 people who were injured - some fatally - doing tasks the federal government deemed vital to national security during the Cold War.

This is of special significance to northwest Ohio because about 75 of these workers made atomic bomb parts at the Brush Wellman plant near Elmore and contracted beryllium disease in the process. Under terms of the legislation, those who are ill, or who become ill, are eligible for government-paid medical benefits for life and a $150,000 cash payment. Heirs of those who died would get just the money.

This is not a perfect settlement. Those who accept would be precluded from suing either the government or Brush Wellman. A cynic might infer that legal protection is what the company sought all along, even as it denied liability.

Neither does the compensation package provide for lost wages. U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur has described the measure as “half a loaf at best,” and suggests that it may have to be strengthened. Fortunately, the law contains language allowing for changes by the next Congress. Finally, it has to be noted that Republican leaders in Congress, slavish to business interests, tried mightily to kill the legislation before realizing that such action did not square with their election-year line about “compassionate conservatism.”

What the Brush Wellman workers and their survivors have suffered was dramatically illustrated in a series of articles in The Blade in 1999. The series documented a 50-year pattern of misconduct by the government and industry resulting in incurable injury and excruciatingly painful death of workers exposed to beryllium dust.

The great bulk of the workers covered by the law were made ill by exposure to deadly radiation and silica at plants in Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, and elsewhere.

Despite the defects of the compensation package, the principle established with this new law is significant and far-reaching. For the first time, the federal government has taken responsibility and apologized for wrongs perpetrated against civilian weapons workers by private industry acting at the government's behest.

“These are not statistics,” Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told Congress. “These are real people with real stories. Their work led to our victory in the Cold War. And what did they get? They've lost their jobs, they've lost their homes, they've lost their health.”

The Clinton administration's willing apology, and its persistence in forcing Congress into a remedy, amount to a welcome turnabout from the official policy of previous governments, which either denied workers were in peril or stonewalled attempts to help them.

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