WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has decided against giving the Justice Department control of a benefit program for sick nuclear workers, a senator who represents some of the ailing workers said yesterday.
"We got an assurance from the White House that they are not going to transfer it there," said U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, (D., N.M.).
Senator Bingaman was one of the authors of the new entitlement program, which later this year is supposed to start offering $150,000 and lifetime medical care to Cold War-era workers exposed to health-robbing levels of radiation, silica, or beryllium.
He was among many worker advocates on Capitol Hill who strenuously objected when the White House circulated a proposed executive order transferring the new program from the Labor Department to the Justice Department.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao insisted her department was not the one best suited for the job. She got backing from three influential congressmen, House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.), Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), and U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R., Ohio), who heads the committee that oversees the Labor Department.
But Senator Bingaman also played some quiet hardball.
Without publicly revealing his strategy, he used his right under Senate rules to block pending nominations to Labor Department posts.
The senator said he didn't even know the names of the nominees whose confirmation he threatened to sidetrack, but let the White House know he "didn't want to go forward with any nominations there in the Department of Labor until we got some assurance that this wouldn't be going to Justice, where the history of efforts like this has been miserable."
The Justice Department runs a program that gives one-time payments to former uranium miners and people who lived downwind of nuclear test blasts who later became sick as a result of their unprotected exposure.
Its small claims staff and lack of branch claims offices were two of the reasons the new program's authors said they preferred it to be run from the Labor Department.
"We take that as wonderful news," said Lowell Strader, legislative director for the union that represents workers at 11 sites in the nuclear weapons complex. "We knew Justice wasn't prepared to handle the program."
Senator Bingaman said discussions had not been completed, and the administration had not decided whether the Labor Department or some other agency would head the new program.
"They are still uncertain what exactly will be done with the program to make it work, but they are committed to making it work," the senator said. "They will meet with us here when Congress returns after this recess to let us know what their plan is."
The new program is for workers who contracted cancer or lung disease because of exposure while on the payrolls of private companies that did work for the bomb program. Some worked on federal property, others at factories that had government contracts.
The Energy Department preliminarily identified 317 sites in 37 states where exposed workers might qualify for benefits.
A toll-free number, 1-877-447-9756, set up by that department to field requests has logged more than 19,000 calls.
The Blade published a series of articles in 1999 that exposed a 50-year pattern of misconduct by the U.S. government and the American beryllium industry - wrongdoing that caused the injuries and deaths of dozens of workers producing the metal, whose dust can cause an incurable, chronic lung disease.