Thursday, April 24, 2008

McConnell Paducah Ad is No Exaggeration

Mark Hebert's blog highlights opposition to Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell's campaign ad regarding the Paducah gaseous diffusion plant. McConnell notes that he secured legislation that saves lives and compensates workers exposed to plutonium. Hebert's source implies, in essence, that McConnell was part of a governmental conspiracy to delude the workers, and did nothing to help them until the scandal went public.

There are two problems with Hebert treating McConnell's critic as credible. First, the critic has a well-documented political agenda: he wants McConnell to lose. Second, the critic, a former worker at the plant, is wrong on the merits.

Hebert relies on Mark Donham as the source of "another side of the story" of the Paducah plant featured in McConnell's ad. Hebert describes Donham as "a former plant worker who quit serving on a committee that was looking at problems in the plant." But Donham is much more than that; he is actively working to defeat McConnell's reelection bid.

To that end, Donham runs a web site, where he has made comments like,

It's time for a Democrat to get the hounds out and track down McConnell's record. Fans of Kentucky politics know exactly what I'm talking about. Unfortunately, I'm not sure if the Dems have any good dog handlers. We'll see. But I'm not sure that political newcomers, even well financed, can mount a successful challenge to the well entrenched McConnell.

Donham is entitled to his opinion, and to advocate for or against whatever candidate he chooses. To pretend the man is just another former worker, however -- without disclosing his political bias -- places his critique of McConnell in a false light.

On the merits, Donham essentially argues that McConnell knew that the Paducah workers had been improperly exposed to plutonium and yet did nothing. Donham writes:

During the decade between 1988 and 1998, McConnell did little or nothing to speak out for local residents and workers. In fact, DOE continually lied to local citizens about the presence of plutonium at the facility.

What Donham forgets is that the citizens of Paducah were not the only ones kept in the dark about the plutonium. Until the Washington Post broke the story in 1999, Kentucky's Congressional delegation did not know about the plutonium exposure.

Contemporaneous press accounts make this clear. Take the Paducah Sun's front page story from August 10, 1999, in which not just McConnell but Congressman Ed Whitfield and former U.S. Senator Wendall Ford "expressed shock and concern over the reports, confirmed Monday by the Department of Energy" that the Paducah workers had been exposed to plutonium.

DOE, under the Clinton administration, did not confirm the reports until 1999. The Sun -- the hometown paper on this issue -- notes that the Washington Post story was the "first allegation of plutonium use at the plant" and that "Employees, the public and members of Congress" had been told otherwise.

DOE and its contractors, Martin Marrietta and Lockheed Martin, had withheld information not just from the Paducah workers but from Congress. The plutonium use became public knowledge when former workers sued the contractors under the False Claims Act for lying to the government. Thereafter, Washington Post obtained and disclosed documents that had been sealed in the litigation.

Consequently, the plutonium exposure was news to the Kentucky delegation. Even Wendell Ford, who sat on the Senate Energy Committee for 18 years, was never told of the plutonium. As Ford told the Sun,

If they had ever mentioned plutonium and Paducah in the same breath, my antenna would have gone up. If plutonium was used at the plant, I should have known about it and if I had known about it, I would have attempted to correct it, and let the employees know."

Donham, in his screed against McConnell, never mentions Ford, even given the former Senator's role on the Energy Committee. But then again, Ford is not a Republican running for reelection.

After the Kentucky delegation learned of the plutonium exposure, McConnell immediately called for Congressional hearings to investigate. From this point on, McConnell authored numerous bills to help the Paducah workers. This is a record of achievement of which he is justifiably proud. It makes for a powerful ad to remind those of us who don't live in Paducah and didn't follow the issue just what he accomplished.

Even Leon Owens, the president of the local AFL-CIO chapter for chemical and energy workers, called McConnell's efforts to "address the economic, health and environmental concerns of the workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant" and its community "steadfast and consistent."

Leon wrote McConnell in July of 2002 to thank McConnell for assisting the workers in myriad ways, including construction of two plants to convert radioactive waste, as well as mobile medical screening equipment to detect lung cancer when it is most treatable. As Leon put it, McConnell's "efforts in the United States Senate are helping save the lives of Paducah plant workers who were put in harm's way."

That is, six years ago a union leader made the same point that McConnell makes in his TV ad.

At a time when DOE's cleanup budget remained flat, cleanup funding for Paducah tripled, as a direct result of McConnell's ability to procure earmarks.

McConnell also co-sponsored worker's compensation legislation tailored to atomic weapons workers. The law allows such workers who contract certain cancers to automatically get a lump sum payment -- without having to prove that their job caused their cancer. As Owens noted, that legislation would have died in conference committee without McConnell's "very aggressive" leadership on the issue.

Donham's invective against McConnell does not change the accuracy of the campaign ad. The more interesting question is, who will play McConnell in the movie?


Jean said...

So how much do you get paid to be on his in-town staff?

Merryman said...

I'm a former member of the citizens' advisory board at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and I served as Chair of that board. I agree with Mark Donham. You'll say, "But she's a Democrat." So what? I still agree with Mark Donham. Nor was Ed Whitfield interested in learning about pollution at "The Plant" until that Washington Post story broke, and he had to show an interest. You quote the local daily as a source against what Mark Donham said. That's rich!
Merryman Kemp

Mark said...

Didn't Democrat Bill Richardson when he was Secretary of Energy actually start the whole compensation program by making several trips to Paducah and ordering an investigation into the exposures? And isn't there still tens of thousands of nuclear workers that should get compensation that haven't yet?

Craig said...

I served with Donham on the Citizen's Advisory Board at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PGDP) for 7 years so I have some insight into his qualifications on this issue.

First off, for the sake of accuracy, Mark Donham is not a former worker at the plant. Has never worked there. Nevertheless, he is considered by many in our area, region and nation, including his opponents, as being one of the most knowledgeable people on this issue around. The Washington Post article that you referenced which finally exposed what was being done at the PDGP, quoted and vetted Donham's information on this extensively.

In essence you downplay Donham's criticism of McConnell based on the false assumption that McConnell and everyone else was "in the dark" about the issue of plutonium at the PGDP. Both history and facts, not just Donham's opinion, speak otherwise.

For instance, it's worth noting that the Paducah Sun, which you also reference and which is deservedly considered to be the most conservative daily newspaper in Kentucky, had years to do what the Washington Post finally did. It wasn't until the Sun's hand was forced by the Post that they then began to defensively report the story of workers being exposed to plutonium. For years prior to that the Paducah Sun had been receiving reports from workers about the issue but instead of reporting it they covered it up. Therefore, your quote from the Sun, "...that the Washington Post story was the "first allegation of plutonium use at the plant", is not true.

You never raised the obvious question; why did it finally take a newspaper outside the region to break this story instead of our local media which has had decades to report on PDGP issues as well as access to the same sources that the Post used? At this point The Paducah Sun in particular and their owners, the Paxton Media Group in general, have very little credibility on this issue so your use of them to bolster your argument is a non-starter.

Regarding Rep. Ed Whitfield, as a member of the Citizen's Advisory Board and eventual Chairperson, I met with Ed Whitfield when the Post article came out. Not only did he not know about the plutonium issue, but he didn't know much of anything else about the PGDP either. Considering that the PGDP is the only plant of its kind in the nation and one of the largest economic engines in the state I found Whitfield's ignorance of it to be shocking. At that point, it was the first and only time that Whitfield ever met with the Citizen's Advisory Board.

Donham made the correct observation that the Kentucky Congressional delegation in general and McConnell in particular, knew little about plutonium at the plant even though they had ample opportunity to do so. But even worse, based on my experience, they knew next to nothing about the plant in general including the myriad environmental disasters outside of the plutonium issue. The question you never ask is why our elected officials, both Democratic and Republican, were so ignorant of the PDGP in the first place?

Contrary to your opinion, thousands of us in the area knew what was going on long before the Post's expose and after years of the Paducah Sun's blackout of the issue so we were not, as you claim, "in the dark". Furthermore, we had repeatedly complained about it to our Congressional Delegation including McConnell but to no avail. Their willful ignorance and inaction is not Donham's fault but the fault of our elected officials including McConnell who is now playing CYA while pretending that he saved the day.

And in Donham's defense against your ad hominem attacks...he works tirelessly for the environment. In that regard he supports any politician from any political party who will work with him on that issue. It's not his fault that, more often than not, it is the Republican Party that takes anti-environmental positions.

McConnell, who is the de-facto leader of the Congressional Republicans, takes the lead on their destructive policies. Which explains Donham's principled opposition to McConnell in contrast to your false charge of partisanship. If McConnell were a Democrat, Donham would still oppose him. And since you brought it up, for that obvious reason Donham isn't opposing Ford because Ford is a Democrat but because he isn't the one running for office.

Moreover, you never noted that Leon Owens' praise of McConnell came long after the fact that prior to the Washington Post article McConnell was AWOL regarding the PGDP. It wasn't until the political pressure from the article forced McConnell's hand, did he begin to finally take note of what was happening in Paducah. So Owens was speaking to McConnell's belated, opportunistic involvement not his prior negligence.

So to paraphrase; your own partisan "screed" against Donham was unfounded. Your efforts would be better served if you put McConnell under the same scrutiny.

Gregory said...

McConnell was so interested in and committed to the plant that 12 years ago after his re-election he asked off of the Senate committee which controlled PGDP. His seniority, as the future of the plant was considered and determined, would have been invaluable but he had asked to be removed from the committee. Check the record--your defense of McConnell sounds like the partisan contribution here, not Donham's recounting of our experience here in the West.