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U.S. to hold field lab sessions

Federal officials will meet with Rocketdyne workers seeking information on filing health claims. Critics say it's not what's needed.

June 01, 2007|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

U.S. Department of Labor officials will be in Simi Valley next week to conduct information sessions for current and former workers of Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory seeking information about federal compensation and medical benefits for those who became ill as a result of working at the former nuclear research facility.

"The Labor Department has undertaken significant outreach activities in an effort to provide detailed information to employees or survivors who may be eligible for benefits," Shelby Hallmark, director of the department's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, said in a written statement. "Our Traveling Resource Center will help attract maximum attention to the program and increase claimant awareness and understanding of the potential for compensation."

The resource center will be open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Best Western Posada Royale Hotel & Suites, 1775 Madera Road.

Workers are eligible for compensation and medical benefits under the 2000 Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.

Since the law went into effect, more than 1,150 Rocketdyne workers and their families, and others from affiliated companies, have applied for benefits. But so far, only 128 claims, or roughly 11%, have been processed, providing a total of nearly $15.5 million in benefits, according to a Labor Department official.

The limited number of cases settled after nearly seven years has drawn criticism from Rocketdyne detractors.

"There is a human tragedy going on daily related to the grinding down of these injured workers by the Department of Labor bureaucracy," said Dan Hirsch, president of the antinuclear group Committee to Bridge the Gap. "And DOL just doesn't seem to get it."

To speed the process, U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) last month introduced a bill to help current and former workers at the Rocketdyne lab who can link their illnesses to their jobs. The Department of Energy and other federal agencies conducted nuclear research on a 290-acre portion of the 2,800-acre hilltop lab over four decades before ceasing operations in the late 1980s.

If Gallegly's bill passes, employees who worked at the lab at least one year and contracted specified cancers from exposure to radiation before Jan. 1, 2006, would automatically receive a lump-sum payment of at least $150,000, plus medical benefits. Those exposed to toxic chemicals, solvents, acids and metals would get up to $250,000, plus medical benefits.

Because the legislation is still working its way through Congress, Labor Department personnel will not discuss how its proposed provisions could streamline the program.

"The Department of Labor's response to criticism that it's acting much too slowly to compensate workers is generally to hold more public relations meetings," said Hirsch, who also serves as co-chairman of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Working Group.

Former Rocketdyne employee Bonnie Klea of West Hills said the biggest problem with the program is not that claims aren't being processed but that so many have been denied.

Klea, a secretary at Rocketdyne from 1963 to 1971, was diagnosed 12 years ago with bladder cancer, which is in remission. She is currently appealing her claim, which was denied two years ago.

"I think it's ridiculous. I don't believe anyone will be coming" to next week's meetings, Klea said. "They've had enough meetings to explain the claims process.... It's like they're looking for more claims to deny."

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