Senator Bingaman Criticizes Slow Place for Workers' Claims

Court of Appeals Revokes Wagon Mound Landfill Permit Modification

* Senator Jeff Bingaman sent a letter to Department of Energy (or DOE) Secretary Spencer Abraham recently criticizing the slow pace at which DOE is evaluating sick workers' claims under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. Bingaman cited the current backlog of 12,000 claims, saying, "This slow pace is unacceptable and must be improved."

The Act calls for a $150,000 compensation payment to employees made ill by their work within the DOE complex. The program is focused primarily on those suffering from beryllium disease and silicosis, but will include cancer victims if it can be proved that the cancer was caused by their work. In order to prove it, each worker's medical file must be reviewed, which slows the process considerably. The Bush Administration recently announced that it would revise the Act's rules in order to hasten the process. At the time, Abraham said, "Under this program, we will help remove bureaucratic barriers that currently confront deserving contractor employees when they seek to obtain state workers' compensation benefits." Despite the Bush Administration's attempts to remove these barriers, as Bingaman pointed out, "If DOE continues at its present pace of six cases per month, [or 72 cases per year], it will take 166 years to clear the backlog."

Worker advocates hope that Bingaman will continue to pressure DOE on the issue. Bingaman wrote, "Injured workers and their survivors depend on the timely adjudication of claims, and the current process is simply unacceptable. I urge you, [Secretary Abraham], to remove any roadblocks or hurdles that stand between workers and their due compensation."

*The New Mexico Court of Appeals repealed a New Mexico Environment Department (or NMED) decision regarding the Northeastern New Mexico Regional Landfill, near Wagon Mound. The decision allowed the landfill to accept additional types of waste, including asbestos waste, offal from animal slaughter houses, waste water treatment sludge, and oil-contaminated sediment and ash. The court ruled that NMED's 1999 decision was invalid because the landfill operator did not follow the correct public notification process for landfill permit modifications.

The public notification process requires that the landfill operator post a conspicuous notice of its intent to request a permit modification. The landfill operator in this case only posted an announcement in the legal notices section of the Raton and Las Vegas newspapers. The court said that the operator was also required to post a more noticeable advertisement. The court ruled that the administrative process followed after the defective notice was invalid. Thus, the hearing and subsequent NMED decision to allow additional waste was revoked. The court ordered NMED to reconsider the proposal after publication of proper public notice.

Activists are pleased with the court's decision and its emphasis on the obligations that are placed on operators and NMED to follow proper public notification process and allow for participation. Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, said, "The Wagon Mound community told NMED at the time that the public notice was inadequate. Unfortunately, they have had to wait more than two years for a just decision."

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