The Buffalo News - Buffalo News Editorials

Broken promises

U.S. needs to speed up compensation for former nuclear workers

11/8/2003

Thousands of chemical workers in Erie and Niagara counties have suffered a variety of health problems because of their employment at plants working on nuclear weapons programs. In recognition of that, the federal government three years ago promised each of the 3,700 workers, or their survivors, $150,000 each to compensate for the problems they have encountered due to radiation exposure in the '40s and '50s.

Almost all of these people are still waiting for their money. That is disgraceful.

Rep. Louise Slaughter is trying to right this wrong. She has proposed reforms to the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000. So far, though, her bill hasn't even gotten a hearing by the Labor Committee.

The compensation act of 2000 was aimed at people who were directly employed by the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy) and those who were employed by vendors. Most claimants in this area are former workers at nuclear plants, those who worked at the sites or their spouses and children.

The Department of Energy is supposed to provide assistance to employees of the department and its contractors, including compensation for lost wages and medical bills. By all accounts, the Energy Department is doing a poor job.

Its pace can be described as glacial. In the past three years, a seven-year backlog of claims has built up. By contrast, the Department of Labor is running a similar program with a much better success rate. That prompted an effort by some senators to get the Labor Department to run the entire compensation program. On Wednesday, however, that proposal was stripped from legislation by the House-Senate conference committee working on the Energy and Water Appropriations Act.

Congress tried to get experts to deal with this issue, so it brought the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in to oversee the claims. That also was a way to get past some conservative Republicans who were afraid of granting any new entitlement. On paper, it looked good. But the institute hired contractors to do the intake, and the results have not been good.

For example, Raymond Corsaro of Niagara Falls has had his paperwork in to the institute for nearly a year and a half, and his claim has gone nowhere. He worked at Lake Ontario Ordnance Works in Lewiston. At 61, he's had prostate cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes and sclerosis of the spine.

Still, he considers himself lucky, especially when compared with those who have died and the widows who are still trying to get compensation. Extended delay defeats the purpose of the law. These people deserve better from their government.

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