The Clinton administration yesterday asked Congress to compensate hundreds of former U.S. Department of Energy contract workers who became ill because of exposure to beryllium dust.
At a news conference, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said the plan would cover contract workers for the agency or those employed by companies that supplied the Department of Energy with beryllium, such as those at the Brush Wellman plant near Elmore.
"This action is long overdue," Mr. Richardson said. "The national security mission and the Department of Energy sent into harm's way some of the men and women who helped the United States win the Cold War. They should be honored for their work. The department is finally going to stop fighting these workers and instead help them get the treatment they need."
If the bill, sponsored by Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D., Pa.), is approved by Congress, hundreds of people who have the lung disease caused by beryllium would be eligible to be reimbursed for their medical costs, lost wages, and retraining expenses.
The bill would offer current and former workers the option of accepting a $100,000 settlement instead of ongoing medical expenses and lost wages. Only those who have suffered the disease, not their families, would be eligible for compensation.
But workers would have to give up the right to sue the companies or the federal government if they accept the proposed compensation. Workers could choose not to accept compensation and retain the right to sue.
Theresa Norgard of Manitou Beach, Mich., a leading advocate for beryllium disease victims, called the $100,000 lump-sum proposal "paltry. It's not adequate."
And she criticized the prohibition against lawsuits by workers. The compensation package, she said, "is a way for the government to protect themselves and their contractors in terms of liability."
Brush Wellman spokesman Hugh Hanes declined to comment, saying he had not had a chance to read the proposed legislation.
Because the bill would cover only those workers at the Brush Wellman plant who supplied parts for the Energy Department, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said she will introduce a companion measure that would cover contract workers and suppliers for the Department of Defense. Some of those who became ill at Brush Wellman were suppliers for the Pentagon.
Beryllium is a metal that has been used to help build nuclear bombs and other advanced weapons since World War II.
Mr. Richardson was joined at the news conference by Miss Kaptur, Mr. Kanjorski, and Reps. Sherrod Brown (D., Lorain), Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland), Ron Klink (D., Pa.), and Ed Whitfield (R., Ky.).
Sen. Mike DeWine (R., O.) issued a statement saying he applauds the administration for acknowledging the problem, but he believes the Department of Energy "could do more to protect all workers who were ... exposed to harmful radioactive materials." He wants workers at the Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, O., included in any compensation package.
An estimated 1,200 current and former workers have contracted the potentially fatal lung disease because of exposure to beryllium since the 1940s, including at least 65 current or former employees at Brush Wellman's Elmore plant. Brush Wellman, which is headquartered in Cleveland, is the nation's leading producer of beryllium.
In a six-part series in March, The Blade documented the hazards of beryllium and how the federal government and the beryllium industry risked the lives of thousands of workers by knowingly allowing them to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust.
Mr. Kucinich held up a copy of The Blade's front page that started the series. He said he is urging his House colleagues to conduct hearings next year into the plight of workers across the country who are suffering from the disease.
"That was an outstanding series," Mr. Kucinich said. "This story outlined how government and industry chose weapons over workers."
Miss Kaptur said her companion bill will provide as much as $200,000 in compensation for those employees who were contract workers or suppliers for the Pentagon. She said, "We also want to include the Department of Defense and their contract workers under this umbrella."
Mr. Klink, while hailing the bill as opening an "opportunity for just compensation for these workers," indicated that he and other lawmakers eventually will want to expand the program to cover the families of former workers who have died from the disease.
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