NUCLEAR WORKERS, BACKED BY REPORT, SEEK REFORMS IN FEDERAL COMPENSATION PROGRAM

(PRESS RELEASE, MONDAY, MARCH 18, 2002)

FOR MORE INFORMATATION

BEN ORTIZ 505-455-3357

JERRY LEYBA 505-753-9853

KEN SILVER 505-820-1143

Nuclear workers made ill from exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation marked the two year anniversary of a landmark public meeting in Española, New Mexico on March 18, 2000 with the release of a report, Justice Delayed: New Mexico Lags Behind in Implementation of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. (Main body of report attached in Word 5.1 file). The report presents statistics on the small number of payments of $150,000 that have so far been made to ill workers, or their survivors, in New Mexico. It also analyzes deficiencies in the program and makes nine recommendations for improving implementation.

“The delays by the Energy Department are shameful,” said Ben Ortiz, a former Los Alamos employee who was made ill by exposure to toxic substances during 20 years on the job. “Many of us were exposed to toxic substances and radiation at the Lab. We were told help was on the way. DOE bureaucrats are violating the commitments made when this law was passed. We didn’t think our government would sink this low,” he said.

Justice Delayed faults the Department of Energy (DOE) for failing to implement Subtitle D of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. Subtitle D covers “other toxic substances,” including the solvents, heavy metals and oil mists that made Ben Ortiz and several of his co-workers sick. The report slams DOE for failing to issue a final rule for “Physicians Panels” -- 17 months after the law was signed. According to the law, these expert panels are to review the medical and exposure records of individual cases of illnesses which may have been caused by toxic chemicals. If the panels decide that the illnesses are work-related, then DOE is supposed to direct its contractors to pay workers’ compensation.

This provision would end the 50 year practice of atomic weapons facilities contesting all claims of occupational illness, even valid ones. Contractors like the University of California (UC), which operates LANL for the DOE, would no longer have their legal expenses reimbursed by DOE to fight compensation claims under state law. At a public hearing in Washington, D.C. in October 2001, UC asked for an exemption from the Physicians Panel rule. Local organizations fired back with formal written comments opposing UC’s request (See Appendix B of Justice Delayed).

“No way should UC be exempt from the Physicians Panel rule,” said Jerry Leyba, a member of the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) Local 1663, “or any other part of this law. LANL employees are entitled to the same legal rights and opportunities as other nuclear workers across the country,” said Leyba. UPTE, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO, is conducting a union organizing drive at LANL. “We’re always fighting to keep the fox out of the hen house around here,” said Leyba, who has worked at LANL for 16 years.

“The General Accounting Office is six weeks past due with their Congressionally-mandated report on evaluating the effectiveness of DOE's program to assist workers with state workers compensation claims for toxic substances,” said Ken Silver, an advocate for injured workers, who authored the report. “These families were promised a GAO report on whether DOE is effectively administering claims for toxic substances,” Silver noted, while standing in front of a poster-sized blow-up of the relevant section of the federal law. “Congress needs to direct the GAO to get going. DOE is footdraggging and now the Congressional watchdog, GAO, is footdragging," he charged. The report identifies key issues GAO needs to investigate.

“Many of this generation of Lab retirees survived the battlefields of World War II only to be cut down by occupational illnesses contracted at the Labs during Cold War,” noted Hilario Romero, a professor of history at Northern New Mexico Community College. “They deserve compensation for illnesses contracted on the job. Our political leaders promised it to them,” he said. Romero is President of El Rio Arriba Environmental Health Association (El RAEHA), a community environmental group based in Espanola.

The report also:

* Asks Congressman Tom Udall and Senator Jeff Bingaman to convene an “all hands” meeting of agencies involved in the program to review implementation and respond to public concerns.

* Calls on President Bush to appoint more injured workers and worker representatives to the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health in order to achieve the “balance” of perspectives required by law.

* Urges the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to: a) issue regulations for expanding Special Exposure Cohorts, which enjoy a legal presumption that 21 kinds of cancer were caused by radiation exposure; and b) choose contractors for dose reconstruction services who are not economically dependent on DOE.

* Demands that LANL cooperate fully with the Centers for Disease Control’s historical documents discovery project.

* Calls for legislative amendments to the federal law to: a) create an ombudsman/advocate position to troubleshoot problems for families who file claims; and b) offer claimants a choice between a lump sum payment of $150,000 or a weekly wage replacement benefit. These are basic features of most workers’ compensation programs.

The Los Alamos Project on Worker Safety (Los Alamos P.O.W.S.) is a project of the following organizations: Citizens for LANL Employee Rights (CLER), El Rio Arriba Environmental Health Association (El RAEHA), and the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) Local 1663. These organizations were integrally involved in the local campaign for passage of the EEOICPAct, beginning in the summer of 1999. Los Alamos P.O.W.S. meets monthly in Española. The Executive Committee has a majority of injured workers and family members. Since April 2000, 13 “Action Alerts” have been mailed to more than 200 New Mexicans concerned with occupational illness compensation. Los Alamos P.O.W.S. is watch-dogging implementation of the law. Through phone-banking, leafleting, popular education, constituent meetings, and other grassroots techniques, Los Alamos P.O.W.S. vows to keep the pressure on government officials.

 

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