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Senators slam new directive on aid for sick U.S. nuclear workers

Siding with sick and dying nuclear workers, Washington state’s U.S. senators took strong aim last week at a new plan advanced by the Obama administration, saying it could make it much harder for eligible employees to win federal compensation.

“We have seen firsthand the difficulties and hazards cleanup work presents at Hanford,” Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell said in a letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who’s in charge of the compensation program.

At issue is a directive that orders claims examiners to conclude that workers at Department of Energy nuclear facilities have not had any significant exposure to toxins since 1995 “in the absence of compelling data to the contrary.”

While the administration has defended the plan as a way to speed up compensation claims, the senators said it appeared to do so “at the expense of the workers the program is designed to compensate.”

In their letter, Murray and Cantwell said the Labor Department might create an “institutional bias” against workers across the country who had been exposed to toxic substances in the last two decades.

The veteran senators said it would be “inaccurate” for the Obama administration to decide that any post-1995 exposures would be within existing regulatory standards.

To make their case, they cited the history of workers at Hanford, the 586-square-mile site in Washington state where workers made plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki as one of the last acts of World War II.

“A cleanup mission inherently means that the workforce is operating in and/or handling hazardous materials and therefore workers remain at risk for exposure,” the senators said.

In a separate move, Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts came to the defense of whistleblowers who’ve exposed wrongdoing at Hanford and other nuclear sites. In a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Markey said no public funds should be spent on legal fees for contractors who fought whistleblower suits.

The suits have been a nagging issue of concern for Markey and many others in Congress.

Last year, for example, Hanford contractor URS agreed to settle a lawsuit by a former employee for $4.1 million. In a major whistleblower case at the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons plant in South Carolina, Sandra Black, who was responsible for looking into concerns raised by employees about everything from health and safety to fraud, abuse and harassment, was fired last year after she told investigators that her supervisors had interfered with her work and had tried to intimidate her into changing her findings.

The letter from Murray and Cantwell marked an initial win for nuclear workers and their advocates, who have been fighting the directive since it was introduced in December 2014.

Many of them have urged Congress to intervene, worrying that it marks the first step toward trying to dismantle or rein in a $12 billion compensation program that has made payments to more than 53,000 sickened workers or their survivors.

In an investigation published in December, McClatchy reported that 107,394 nuclear workers or their relatives have applied for compensation from a fund set up in 2001 to help those suffering from cancers and other diseases. More than 33,000 of those workers who received compensation are now dead. In many cases, the money went to survivors.

Murray and Cantwell are top Democrats on key committees that oversee both the Department of Labor and Department of Energy.

Murray, first elected in 1992, is the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Cantwell, a third-term senator, is the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

While neither senator called for hearings, a Murray aide said the letter began a fact-finding mission aimed at determining whether the new policy was working for sick employees.

Despite stronger standards, safety lapses have continued to plague the nation’s nuclear weapons and research sites.

McClatchy’s examination of government records showed that 25 contractors have paid more than $106 million in fines for 75 incidents of safety-related misconduct at Department of Energy nuclear sites since 1995. The records also revealed that at least 15 of those contractors had paid $2.4 million worth of fines for 19 instances of misconduct specifically related to toxic substance exposure.

Unions say the Obama administration directive places a higher burden of proof on construction workers, security guards and other employees who aren’t regularly assigned to one particular location.

The Department of Labor has defended its directive, saying it’s aimed only at increasing efficiency and delivering workers faster answers on their claims, not at saving money.

In a 2015 memo explaining the directive, Rachel Leiton, director of the compensation program, says claims examiners don’t rely only on evidence provided by workers. They also consult industrial hygienists, a database on toxic substances at the nation’s nuclear facilities and information supplied by the Department of Energy and its contractors.

“The idea that we somehow have an incentive to deny claims reflects a complete misunderstanding of the program,” Leonard J. Howie III, director of the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, said in an earlier statement to McClatchy.

Despite the assurances, Terrie Barrie, of Craig, Colorado, founding member of the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, said she welcomed the move by Murray and Cantwell, adding it was good that they “are asking hard questions” about the compensation program and the new directive.

It “has the potential to deny worthy claimants who are involved in the cleanup,” she said.

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009, @HotakainenRob

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