01/22/2014 02:50 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Mitch McConnell Once Again Plays Politics With Plant Workers

WASHINGTON -- In the first major television ad buy of his 2014 campaign, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) does not tout his ability to cut deals as the Senate minority leader or highlight his anti-Obamacare rhetoric. Instead, the McConnell campaign chose a rerun from his last Senate race.

The ads, running statewide, tell the story of Paducah, Ky.'s toxic uranium enrichment plant -- as McConnell sees it.

The Cold War relic once delivered stable jobs and prosperous growth to the small Western Kentucky town located on the banks of the Ohio River. For decades, the facility also poisoned its workers and nearby waterways. After The Washington Post published an exposé in 1999, McConnell worked to provide the workers with free health care and screenings.

The six-figure buy consists of two spots. In both, Robert Pierce, a former plant worker and throat cancer survivor, praises McConnell. "He knocked down walls for us," he says in one ad. "Mitch McConnell gives a voice to Kentucky's working families."

Six years ago, Pierce appeared in a similar ad telling viewers that the senator "went to bat for us" and that he "cares for the working man."

Here is one of the new ads:

Here is the old ad:

Other Paducah residents who suffered illnesses from poisoned wells and plant watchdogs who repeatedly warned of the hazards will likely disagree with Pierce's assessment. For more than 15 years in office, as The Huffington Post chronicled in a profile of the senator, McConnell all but ignored the problems at the plant. Mark Donham, who had served as chairman of the Paducah Citizens Advisory Board, which monitored plant safety, told HuffPost, "McConnell never stood up and lobbied for an investigation" into the plant's hazards.

Long before McConnell took note of workers like Pierce, the plant had poisoned dozens of area wells, had been designated a Superfund cleanup site and had become the subject of lawsuits. Ronald Lamb, who was sickened by bad well water, told HuffPost that he wrote letters to McConnell and other politicians but got nowhere. "We thought we were dying," he told HuffPost. "I lost the hair on my arms. It looked like I had chemo."

Lamb said he received nothing but form letters back.

Instead, McConnell worked to keep the plant open and protect its operators from lawsuits. HuffPost reported last spring:

McConnell's sole concern about the plant seems to have been protecting it from layoffs and lawsuits. Midway through his first Senate term, he came out in favor of economic sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime, but fought the ban on importing that country's uranium. McConnell worried about the effect of fewer uranium shipments on jobs back in Paducah. In 1988, he voted against an amendment that would have made Department of Energy nuclear subcontractors liable for accidents caused by intentional negligence or misconduct at plants like Paducah.

McConnell's opposition to trial lawyers became his justification for inaction on worker health. After coming out against another provision aimed at assisting workers in high-risk jobs, he complained that the bill would simply "stimulate personal injury and worker compensation litigation on a scale far beyond our present imagination."

A McConnell campaign spokesperson on Wednesday denied the allegation that the senator had waited years before assisting the workers. "Those accusations are not true," Allison Moore emailed HuffPost.

And at a press conference last spring, McConnell refused to answer HuffPost's questions about plant safety. "That's of course a parochial question," he said.

The McConnell campaign's trip down memory lane should come as no surprise. Early in his Senate career, McConnell saw winning over Paducah as key to his electoral success. He essentially promised to keep the plant open and the jobs in place no matter the other concerns. But as McConnell faces his toughest reelection campaign in years -- going up against Matt Bevin, a tea party primary challenger, and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, his chief Democratic opponent -- the plant may actually become a political liability.

Last spring, the government contractor operating the plant announced that it was halting production.

On Wednesday, Jim Key, the union vice president representing plant workers, told HuffPost that "the enrichment part of the plant has completely shut down and the layoffs have occurred." Roughly 450 workers have been laid off so far with another 110 scheduled to lose their jobs next month. In April, Key anticipates, nearly 500 more workers will be laid off.

Key said that the workers recognize the plant is really shutting down. They are now going to job fairs and looking into the state's workforce development programs.

"It is no surprise Mitch McConnell has to recycle old TV ads given that he offers no new ideas," Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton said in a statement released Wednesday morning. "It is insulting to Kentuckians for McConnell to haul out this old, dishonest play every six years when he's on the ballot. The contrast couldn't be clearer: Mitch McConnell will continue to run from his failed 30-year Washington record, while Alison Lundergan Grimes will bring a fresh approach and stand up for all Kentucky workers."



Say Cheese! Mitch McConnell Smiles