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 program.

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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