Nominations needed for nuclear worker advisory board

-A A +A

SANTA FE (AP) — The terms have expired for nearly all members of a federal advisory panel charged with making recommendations and providing guidance for a program designed to compensate workers who were exposed to toxic chemicals at U.S. nuclear weapons labs.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the Trump administration has not nominated any new members to the board.

"For two years our board put a lot of brain power and cutting edge expertise into developing recommendations," said Ken Silver, an occupational health professor at Eastern Tennessee State University, who until last month was a board member. "Without appointing another board, those recommendations may disappear into the ether."

Silver was one of 14 members of the Advisory Board on Toxic Substances and Worker Health whose terms expired in February. The remaining member's term expires this month.

The U.S. Labor Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment but indicated in a recent letter to a workers' advocacy group that nominations were still being reviewed.

In response to intense lobbying and long-standing concerns that workers were not receiving proper compensation, the advisory board was created in the waning years of the Obama administration.

Made up of scientists, doctors and other advocates, the board's recommendations regarding the Labor Department's Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program have led to changes, including the repeal of a rule that made it more difficult for workers injured in the past two decades to get compensation.

Since 2001, the illness compensation program has paid upward of $14 billion in medical benefits and compensation to more than 118,000 U.S. Energy Department employees who worked at nuclear facilities such as Los Alamos National Laboratory and have been diagnosed with radiation- and chemically induced diseases. Thousands of additional claims are pending.

A separate board, which is active, advises the federal government on radiation-related claims.

The way the program has been administered over the years has been criticized. In 2016, the Government Accountability Office found that in roughly 10 percent of toxic substance claims reviewed, officials denied them without looking at the scope of the chemicals and risks present at the work site.

The investigation also found that decisions over benefit awards contained inaccuracies — including the wrong medical conditions — and were not consistently reviewed by supervisors.

A 2010 GAO report highlighted the lack of independent oversight and expertise in how chemical-related claims were handled.

Many claims date back decades, when it was commonplace for workers to perform dangerous tasks without protective clothing, masks or health monitoring, and without being told of potential risks.

Some board members and doctors have said they are seeing more workers whose claims are tied to exposure in recent years.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico who supported legislation to establish the advisory board in 2014, said he and workers' advocates are concerned about the board's lapse and said it could harm the scientific integrity of the compensation program.

In December, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats from Washington state, wrote to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, urging him to reappoint board members who asked to continue serving.

Cold War Patriots and the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, another national organization, sent similar letters to the Labor Department.

Steven Markowitz, who was the board's chairman and is a professor at Queens College and CUNY School of Public Health in New York, said delays in appointments could stall momentum.

"It is a complicated program," he said. "It took us a while and I think we are still learning. If they were to appoint a new set to go through that learning curve again, that would be kind of a shame."

During a meeting in January, board members compiled a list of pending items and suggestions for a new board to address, such as reassessing the standard by which workers' chemical exposures are reviewed during the claims process and gathering data on the types of claims the Labor Department most frequently denies.