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SWIFT ACTION VOWED FOR NUCLEAR WORKERS.

Byline: Beth Barrett Staff Writer

Department of Labor and Boeing Co. officials responded quickly Wednesday to public disclosure that thousands of former San Fernando Valley nuclear workers who might have been made ill by radiation exposure could be entitled to assistance.

Labor Department officials agreed to set up a satellite office in the Los Angeles area to process claims by former San Fernando Valley nuclear workers who did Cold War work at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, and related facilities, Congressman Elton Gallegly, R-Oxnard, said Wednesday.

The verbal commitment by the head of the nuclear workers' compensation program came after the Daily News reported in Wednesday editions that the region was being shortchanged in program services, despite up to 6,000 former Rockwell International workers who did Department of Energy contract work for decades and now could be eligible for $150,000 each and lifetime medical benefits.

``I think it wasn't that there wasn't much interest prior to the story, but rather there was not much knowledge,'' said Gallegly, a former Simi Valley mayor.

``They said if we made the request, they'd set up the satellite office in the L.A. area to help workers fill out applications. A satellite office means to me a permanent type of facility, a modular unit or a storefront. It doesn't mean a bus driving through the community.''

Gallegly said he expects a ``very short turnaround,'' with input from a local citizens advisory group on the best location.

The disclosure that the lab also handled beryllium metal, which produces a dust that can cause fatal lung disease, also qualifies former beryllium workers there for a new Department of Energy contract testing program, said Mike Lopez, the Oakland Department of Energy official overseeing environmental restoration of the DOE portion of the lab.

Officials with Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power, a business unit of The Boeing Co., which purchased Rockwell, said the company is independently setting up its own beryllium testing program that will be even more rigorous than the government's program.

Blythe Jameson, the company's manager of environmental communications, said about 80 former beryllium workers have been identified so far, most of them retired, and that an aggressive outreach is planned to notify them of the testing program, which should be set up in a few months.

``We have an active retiree group and newsletter to track them down,'' Jameson said.

Jameson said the company decided on its own to go beyond what the DOE is doing and to include any workers who historically worked with beryllium.

Positive readings for beryllium sensitivity make workers eligible for continued monitoring under the Department of Labor's compensation program, and they would receive health benefits if beryllium disease - characterized by scarring of the lungs - develops.

Pete Turcic, who oversees the compensation program in Washington, D.C., and who said Tuesday that the program had gotten little interest from Southern California workers, said after the Daily News story appeared Wednesday there was a measurable jump in calls to the agency's hotline.

Rocketdyne officials said they only received one call, noting that the information was previously dispensed to employees through an online newsletter with a link to the Department of Labor.

Turcic was the official who Gallegly said gave the verbal commitment that the satellite office would be set up in Los Angeles. Turcic was interviewed for this story prior to that conversation, and he could not be reached later in the day.

Turcic, in the interview, acknowledged more could be done for Southern California, including a town hall meeting, depending on an analysis of the calls and other factors. But he said the current schedule is so tight, it would be difficult to do anything before July 31.

While there is no deadline on workers filing for compensation and medical claims, the medical benefits can begin as early as July 31 for those who file on that date.

``We're trying to plan it the best we can,'' Turcic said.

INFORMATION

For information on the compensation program, call the Department of Labor toll-free at (866) 888-3322, or go to the agency's Web site at www.dol.gov, where there is a link to the program.

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INFORMATION (see text)

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HEALTH PROBLEMS

SOURCE: Daily News research
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 12, 2001
Words:707
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