Labor Department To Oversee Compensation Program
DOE Studies Waste Inspection Procedures After WIPP Drum Mix-up
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao decided this week to supervise
compensation for workers who are sick or died due to exposure to radiation
during the Cold War. Chao had previously refused the project claiming that
her department lacked the resources needed to oversee the program, and that
the Justice Department was better equipped for such a project. Chao
changed her mind after Congress gave the Labor Department more than $60
million to initiate the program.
Lawmakers who proposed the program also introduced a bill that
would force the Labor Department to oversee the compensation of workers.
The program is offering $150,000 to workers who were employed in the
nuclear weapons complex, factories that handled dangerous materials, and
test sites in Alaska and Nevada. Some of these facilities are in New
Mexico. Many of these workers were made seriously ill due to exposure to
uranium dust, lung-clogging silica, or beryllium particles. The program is
limited to those with radiation-related cancers, chronic beryllium disease,
or silicosis. More than 600,000 workers participated in weapons-work
during the Cold War, many of whom helped instigate the compensation
Congress mandated that the Labor Department begin accepting
applications for compensation on July 31, but Chao said that her department
will not be able to meet the Congressional deadline. The May 31 deadline
for completing the regulations necessary for implementing the program is
also likely to be missed. Despite the delay, medical benefits to eligible
workers will be retroactive to July 31, 2001. Chao would not estimate how
much time would be needed, but said, "I'm pushing . . . as hard as I can to
make sure that we're doing all that we can to meet the deadline, but I'm
not going to mislead the workers."
The U.S. Department of Energy (or DOE) is studying the methods used
to inspect waste shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (or WIPP) after
a misidentified waste container arrived at the dump from the Idaho National
Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (or INEEL).
The drum was one of 14 sent to WIPP on March 24, and contained
graphite debris, which can be stored there. However, the container was
mislabeled and WIPP officials expected it to contain materials from a
light-metal waste stream. Since WIPP opened in March 1999, there have been
a number of transportation and identification problems.
WIPP officials claim that the mistake was made in Idaho, where the
waste originated, saying that the error was a simple one-number difference
in container identification numbers and that, "The checks that are required
to be done (at WIPP) were done." Activists would like the problems to be
investigated so situations like this never happen again.
The misidentified container will remain at WIPP, but the
identification process will be inspected nevertheless. The New Mexico
Environment Department (or NMED) is currently investigating the mishap.
The Department requested information from INEEL and WIPP about this most
recent mistake. NMED will investigate how such a mistake happened and ways
in which it can be prevented in the future.
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