- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002


Under pressure from Congress, the Bush administration has decided to reverse policy and quit fighting illness-compensation claims from Cold War-era nuclear-weapons workers exposed to toxic chemicals.

Final Department of Energy regulations, obtained by the Associated Press and expected to be issued today, instruct contractors not to contest medical panels' findings that workers' illnesses are related to job exposure.

The new rules reverse a decades-old policy and differ from a draft proposal circulated earlier this year that lets contractors contest such findings and even said the Department of Energy would help pay for appeals.

The regulations could affect more than 12,000 workers seeking help from the department in getting compensation. Most of the affected workers live in states with large DOE facilities, such as Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.

Lawmakers from states with nuclear-weapons plants said the administration's original proposal ran counter to the intent of a bill Congress passed two years ago.

"It appears that DOE has addressed the major concerns that were raised about the draft rule last spring," said Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, who added that more workers would now get compensated.

Richard Miller, a policy analyst with the Government Accountability Project, a Washington watchdog group, said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham "overrode his own staff and really deserves some credit for reversing some of the flaws in the previous rule."

The rule is aimed at helping thousands of workers across the country who were exposed to toxic substances at DOE facilities run by government contractors.

Those workers were not included in a year-old federal program that provides medical care and $150,000 each to weapons-plant workers made ill by exposure to radiation or silica and beryllium, which cause lung diseases.

Instead, Congress told the department to help the chemical-exposed workers file claims under state worker-compensation systems.

Under the new rule, the department will establish a uniform standard for physicians to consider when determining what made a worker sick.

"A single causation standard rather than 50 different state standards is a major help," said Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican.

Lawmakers also praised the uniform standard for being generous rather than restrictive.

It says a claimant should be reimbursed if exposure to a toxic substance on the job was "a significant factor in aggravating, contributing to or causing the worker's illness or death."

The new regulations also provide that only a majority vote is needed to find in favor of a claimant, compared with a unanimous vote needed under the old policy.

The potential cost of the claims is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Many weapons-plant contractors are self-insured and are reimbursed by the department for worker-compensation costs.

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