The government is investigating whether officials at federal uranium enrichment plants falsified radiation exposure records for workers, the Department of Energy's top safety official told Senate committee members Wednesday.
"We have heard those allegations and we're pursuing them," said David Michaels, assistant secretary for environment, safety and health.
Michaels made his comments after Jeffrey Walburn, a guard at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio, told Senate Governmental Affairs Committee members not to believe anything they read about exposure levels.
"The records are not accurate or believable," Walburn , who suffers from respiratory problems, told the members. "They can make your dosimetry a tailor-made reading of what they want it to reveal."
Ann Orick of Knoxville, Tenn., showed senators a copy of a medical report her husband -- a co-worker -- received after a 1973 accident at the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Tennessee.
The handwritten document has two parts blacked out where plant officials hid the identity of the red-and-white powder with which he came in contact.
Orick said her husband suffers breathing problems and said her family is frustrated they cannot find out what caused the ailment.
Committee chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., received an ovation from what had been a hushed crowd when he said action must be taken now.
"How can they treat him properly if they don't know what they're dealing with? We need to do something about that," Thompson told Michaels.
Michaels responded by pointing out that the Clinton administration is working on legislation to compensate sick workers.
President Clinton ordered a draft report last July investigating the connection between workers at 14 nuclear weapons sites and their illnesses after the Energy Department concluded the government should compensate workers who developed an incurable lung disease because of exposure to beryllium.
The Clinton Administration has proposed offering medical benefits, lost-wage reimbursement, optional job retraining or a single $100,000 cash payment to workers suffering illnesses caused by beryllium exposure.
In addition, the plan also includes proposed compensation of $100,000 to each worker at the Paducah plant exposed to radioactive materials known to cause cancer.
Thompson warned the bill should not rely on questionable documents or force workers to demonstrate exposure levels that cannot be proven.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has said "that the burden of proof should not be on workers."
Despite the administration's proposed offerings, many workers remain in limbo. Thompson's committee heard from some of them.
Cancer victim Sam Ray of Lucasville, Ohio, said he worked at Portsmouth for decades without any protective clothing. Walburn, who lives in Greenup, Ky., said he does not believe he was told the truth about what he inhaled during a 1994 incident at Portsmouth that permanently damaged his lungs.
Thompson said the illnesses suffered by workers are real and should be acknowledged by the government.
"It's time for the federal government to stop automatically denying any responsibility and face up to the fact that it appears as though it (the government) made at least some people sick," said Thompson.