PORTS Past and Future: The Health Crisis and Starting Anew

By Ellenore Holbrook

When an individual is elected into any office, they are often faced with a number of issues that they must address but had little to no action in creating. This was seen when Senator Voinovich’s was elected Governor of Ohio and had to address the budget crisis, but some problems are not as pertinent or may not appear until later (The Burden of a Budget Deficit). However, the representative is still responsible and must work to find a solution to any and all issues. Senator Voinovich experienced this a number of times in office but one major project that he faced began in 1954, at the beginning of the Cold War, when the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant was opened in Piketon, Ohio (Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant Remarks, 10.30.1999). The plant was created by the United States Atomic Energy Commission to expand the atomic energy program, and was welcomed by Portsmouth locals as a way to develop the local economy (History of the Plant). For years, the plant functioned properly, was passed to private ownership to maintain jobs, and provided stability to the local economy, yet underlying issues would later come to fruition.

In the late 1990s, a series of reports were published by The Columbus Dispatch regarding unusual illnesses in and around the community of Oak Ridge, which was home to a similar plant in Tennessee. The Centers for Disease Control performed a study but found inconclusive results. Soon the issue grew and, in 1999, the Department of Energy “acknowledged that certain workers at DOE sites had been exposed to harmful materials” (Thompson/Voinovich Announce Hearing on Health and Safety Issues, 2000). Senators Fred Thompson from Tennessee and Senator Voinovich held an oversight hearing into the Department of Energy’s health and safety management the following year and discussed the fact that many workers were suffering from Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD). Senator Voinovich expressed at the hearing:

I believe the brave men and women of Piketon, Oak Ridge and Paducah – as well as all those who have served our nation – deserve to know if the federal government was responsible for causing them illness or harm, and if so, to provide them the care that they need. The time to act is now. (The Department of Energy’s Management of Health and Safety Issues at its Gaseous Diffusion Plant, March 22, 2000)

While the issue had been developing for decades, it was now up to Senator Voinovich to address the harm experienced by many of the workers.

His work began immediately by co-sponsoring the Energy Employees’ Compensation Act in January of 2000 (Beryllium Nuke Workers Press Release, 1.24.2000). Then, in May 2000, Senator Voinovich introduced an expanded version of the original Bill to include all Department of Energy employees, not only those working on DoE facilities. Senate Bill 2519 entitled “Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act of 2000” ensured civilian employees were entitled to $150,000 in monetary compensation for a number of illnesses relating to nuclear weapon development (Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act). The Bill was cosponsored by 11 other Senators, both Republicans, and Democrats and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on December 7, 2000.

While the Bill was a win for all the workers at the plant, a new issue loomed on the horizon. In 1998, Congress had passed legislation that would allow two facilities to be built that would convert depleted uranium hexafluoride into a stable material. One of those facilities was to be placed in the Piketon facility and was to be run by the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC). However, it was soon clear that facility would not be used as stated as it required a massive restricting to ensure all former materials could be properly disposed of or stored (7.28.04 Portsmouth DUF6 Groundbreaking). The Senator proposed and passed a $279 million bill to fund the clean up the waste and expressed, “Not only is cleanup and transition funding important to the region’s economy, but it also helps address potential hazards to public health and the environment, which is why I’m glad I was able to help secure these funds” (Voinovich DeWine Announce Portsmouth to Receive Federal Funding, 11.19.2003). The cleanup of the massive plant would be a long-term process, but that did not dissuade the Senator as he continued to push forward.


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