Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, says the Justice Department is undermining a law Congress passed last year to compensate downwind cancer victims of atomic testing in the West.
Owens wrote Acting Attorney General William Bar saying the procedure his Justice Department is proposing to distribute money to victims and their families includes "rules which could make it very difficult for deserving persons to prove their claims."He said that "will undermine the program as it was intended by Congress" - and said that he should know since he and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wrote and sponsored it.
The law is designed to give $50,000 to downwind victims of open-air atomic testing and $100,000 to uranium miners, who the Department of Energy knew were at high risk of cancer but did not warn them. The law was also amended after original passage to pay $75,000 to cancer victims who worked at the Nevada Test Site.
Owens said problems with Justice Department rules include sometimes not allowing death certificates as proof that a person died of diseases believed to be caused by atomic testing, not allowing affidavits by co-workers to prove someone worked in a uranium mine and not allowing lawyers to help claimants.
Owens wrote he is "troubled that death certificates will not be accepted as evidence unless signed by the `claimant's treating physician at the time of death.' I consider that requirement to be unnecessary, arbitrary and unreasonable."
He added, "Inadmissability of death certificates issued by public agencies is insensitive to the remote and poor conditions in which these people lived, particularly Navajos . . . The Navajos received their medical care from federal health agencies, where they did not have access to a regular `treating physician.' "
Owens also said "the prohibition against affidavit evidence of employment could disqualify many deserving applicants. This prohibition is based on the belief that existing records are reliable. But there are major gaps in the government data bases."
Those gaps include: Many uranium mining companies did not preserve employment rec-ords through the years; many mining companies no longer exist; and government surveys of miners were incomplete and limited to whomever inspectors found at mines when they visited.
"Every court in our country allows affidavit evidence," Owens wrote. "Unless affidavit evidence is allowed, as many as half of those who should qualify for compensation could be eliminated. That would be a tragic and unjustifiable culmination to the years of effort that finally led to the passage of the act."
Owens also complained the Justice Department is setting up procedures modeled after a system used to distribute payments to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II.
"The Japanese Internment database was complete and reliable. The database for radiation exposure is neither," Owens said.
He also complained the Justice Department would not allow claimants to use lawyers. "The act allows lawyers to assist clients and provides modest compensation of only 10 percent. The act neither discourages nor encourages lawyers, and nor should the regulations.
"Some cases are complicated. Some are simple. Claimants should feel free to use or not use lawyers as their cases may require."
Owens represented many downwinders as an attorney before he was elected to Congress. Many of his old law partners still represent them, including former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and former Democratic House candidate Kenley Brunsdale.
Owens also complained proposed rules could cut how much money downwinders and uranium miners receive.
The bill said that any amount they had received in earlier court settlements should be reduced from the amount the government gives them. The Justice Department wants to count instead that money's present value, which is the amount paid adjusted by inflation rates through the years.
Owens said the bill allowed such figuring only for test-site workers, not downwinders or uranium miners.
Because Congress will likely not appropriate enough money to fully compensate all claimants initially, Owens suggested prorating payments among all claimants.
"It would be better, in my view, for all successful claimants to receive half their compensation in this fiscal year, for example, than for only half the successful claimants to receive any money at all."
The Justice Department is currently accepting public comments on its proposed rules to implement the downwinder compensation law.