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Short History of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act

October 5, 2020

October 5, 2020

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Twenty years ago, on October 30, Congress made history by passing the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA).  This compassionate legislation reversed decades of injustice for workers employed in the Department of Energy’s (DOE) nuclear weapons facilities. Previously, claims filed by workers under the states’ workers’ compensation programs for occupational illnesses, which arose from exposures to radiation and other toxic substances, were vigorously contested by the DOE contractors. It was rare that a worker was compensated under a state’s program.  Evidence to win cases was hard to come by, shielded by needless classification of documents which was used to cover up the knowledge that workers were placed in harm’s way.

The origins of this legislation go back to some of the early investigative reports by news outlets which raised the public awareness of plight of these workers.  The Tennessean’s reporters Laura Frank, Susan Thomas, and Robert Sherborne, for example, published articles for three months in 1998.  One article was a request by the workers to meet with President Bill Clinton’s DOE Secretary, Bill Richardson.

Under the leadership of Secretary Richardson, DOE Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels held field hearings around the country to hear directly from the workers, their family members, and their survivors about the ultrahazardous conditions in the nuclear weapons complex.  Their testimony convinced Congress of the need to propose a federal compensation program.  Legislation was introduced in the Senate by Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) on May 9, 2000. Eleven other Senators co-sponsored the bill.  Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) along with Congressman Ted Strickland (D-OH) introduced similar legislation on the House side.

Yes, Congress did listen. But it is a far cry between having legislation introduced and having it passed into law.  There was some push back from other federal agencies.  Some feared the precedent would federalize compensation liability for asbestos claims in the Navy shipyards.  Employers such as Brush Wellman wanted immunity from lawsuits for beryllium disease.

In the ensuing months workers organized either through their union, through local groups and even as individuals to educate other Congressional members.  They visited D.C. They visited the local Congressional offices.  They made phone calls, sent letters and talked with their local press.  As the deal was being constructed, they camped out in a Tennessee Senator’s office and refused to leave until legislation was agreed upon.  Legislators such as former Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Fred Thompson (R-TN), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), and current Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY); as well as then Representative Mark Udall (D-CO), now Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and many others took up the cause and were able to convince and unite their fellow lawmakers that these sick workers or their survivors deserved fair compensation for their illnesses.

EEOICPA has been a blessing for many workers, with over 90,000 cases being approved for financial compensation and medical benefits. The crafters of the statute provided an avenue which would allow certain claimants to receive automatic compensation for certain cancers without the need to go through a complicated process called dose reconstruction.

The statute created the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health.  The Board is responsible for advising the Secretary of Health and Human Services on whether radiation dose can be conducted with sufficient accuracy by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). If the Board determines that NIOSH cannot, those workers become members of the Special Exposure Cohort (SEC). Thousands of claimants have received compensation through the SEC process. Despite an attempt early in the program to limit the Board’s responsibilities, the Board continues to evaluate petitions for nuclear weapons sites which may be added to the SEC and to review NIOSH’s dose reconstruction methodology.

Over the past 20 years, EECOIPA has gone through some changes.  In 2004, EEOICPA was reformed to remove claim adjudication from DOE to the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Office of the Ombudsman was created.  Congress also simplified the process for claimants who developed chronic beryllium disease by laying out specific criteria a claimant must provide to prove they developed the disease.  In 2014, the statute was amended again to create the Advisory Board on Toxic Substances and Worker Health which advises the Department of Labor.

Cold War Patriots extends its deep appreciation to all who were involved in creating this much needed program and who fought hard to make it a reality.