Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Obama calls for payments to sick Cold War nuclear weapons workers


NAPERVILLE, Ill. - Sen. Barack Obama testified Tuesday that a program to compensate Cold War-era nuclear weapons workers who become ill unfairly excludes many people and moves so slowly that others die before they're paid.

Speaking to the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, the Illinois Democrat said too many obstacles have been placed before those now-elderly workers _ or their survivors _ who deserve to be included in the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act passed by Congress in 2000.

Eligibility requirements include proof of years of employment, the kind of work they did and the radiation to which they were exposed, he said.

"Unfortunately, much of this evidence is extremely difficult to obtain decades after the fact," he told the panel.

Obama said he and other elected officials have often gotten little response to requests for information about how the program is being implemented.

"If a United States senator cannot get timely answers to reasonable questions, I'm hard pressed to imagine how a 70-year-old retired worker with cancer is going to obtain the information he needs to effectively present his claims," he said.

Obama specifically spoke about four plants in Illinois where former workers or their families have filed claims: Blockson Chemical in Joliet, Allied Chemical in Metropolis, Dow Chemical in Madison and General Steel Industries in Granite City. More than 3,500 claims have been filed by workers at those plants and 13 other sites around the state, Obama said.

His complaints echoed those of elected officials and former workers at other plants around the country who say the process to receive the $150,000 and medical benefits the program provides are too cumbersome and time consuming.

At issue Tuesday was whether the panel would recommend to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services add workers at Blockson Chemical and Allied Chemical to a special "exposure cohort," which entitles workers at specific plants in the Cold War era to automatically receive compensation if they worked there for at least 250 days and developed at least one of 22 kinds of cancer.

The panel recommended the designation for workers at Allied Chemical _ it now goes to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt for a final decision _ and followed Obama's recommendation to delay the Blockson recommendation to conduct more research into how NIOSH reached its conclusion about the plant.

Survivors of those who worked at the plant said they don't understand the resistance to their efforts.

"If uranium causes cancer and (plant officials) were aware of that and they sent those men in there, who has responsibility for that?" Cheryl Cottrell, who told Obama how her father, a Blockson employee, died in 1972 of lymphoma at age 46.

And Harry Burkhart, whose father, a former Blockson worker who died of lung cancer in 1995 at 72, said the federal government is compounding the damage already done by dragging its feet and denying claims as they did his father's.

"These poor people were violated by the government and now they're being violated by the government again," he said.

Obama said the workers, whom he called "brave Americans" for the dangerous work they did for their country, deserve better.

"What we don't want to see is the federal government just waiting folks out and that's something I think is a great source of frustration," he told the relatives before addressing the panel.
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