Tonawanda News Sunday, November 25, 2001

By Tim Schmitt

Don Finch fights for the FACTS about Linde/Praxair

 

Don Finch's take on life is pretty simple:

Flip a coin and hope.

"Pretend you're trying to get to the West Coast without a map," he said. The way I look at it, you keep coming to forks in the road and just hope you make the right choices. But you want a chance to make those choices."

Finch, who has been a Town of Tonawanda resident for decades, admits he zigged when he should have zagged in 1968, when he quit his job as a city of Tonawanda postal carrier just before the job's salary got a mighty boost. Instead, he kicked round in a variety of capacities until 1974, when he headed down another road he wishes he hadn't - as an employee at Linde/Praxair.

After 20 years in the trenches, Finch still isn't sure why nobody mentioned to him or his co-workers that the potential for uranium contamination within the building[s] was possible. At least, he said, it would have presented a choice.

"That's the part that really hurts," Finch said while enjoying a cup of coffee and a cigarette - another fork at which he realizes he made a wrong turn - at Nestor's in North Tonawanda. "In all my time doing research on this, I haven't come across one person who was told he could be exposed to something. There was no warning whatsoever."

Finch has followed closely as representatives from the U.S. Departments of Labor and Energy came to Amherst last week as part of a lump-sum compensation policy recently put into effect. A new law that began Aug. 1 is set to hand a cash settlement to those who are seriously ill from exposure to beryllium, silica or radiation while working at companies that were in conjunction with the energy department in the 1940s and 1950s.

He realizes that he is not eligible for the money - up to $150,000 - the government is offering, but he still has a question:

Who is?

"Let me get this straight," he said. "If you were seriously ill from being exposed to these things in the 1940s, you're eligible for $150,000, right? Tell me what person that was seriously affected by this is still around from the 40s?

"I'm looking at this one way - it's a very cruel hoax. They're getting big headlines and people are saying, 'Wow, that's a lot of money.' But there's no one left to collect. There are some spouses and children who may get something from this, but that's about it."

Finch did not work directly with uranium at the plant, but he and others claim the damage had already been done. Lingering effects from uranium refining had already made Building 14, one of the trouble spots, a breeding ground for cancer, according to Finch.

And at 68, Finch is hardly a grumpy or uninformed senior citizen. His days are spent on the Internet, where he is involved in a number of discussion groups and consistently updates his Web site for FACTS (For a Clean Tonawanda Site), a group he started with former co-workers Ralph Krieger and Tom Schafer.

Finch admits he's tiring of the fight to rectify the situation at Linde/ Praxair, but he hopes his message can help others make decisions he never could.

"It scares me that people, like some of the local residents who could be in a dangerous area, continue to act like ostriches," he said. "They put their heads in the sand and hope the problem goes away. It probably won't." [In the beginning,] FACTS has recommended that Building 14 be torn down. With the property assessed under $400,000, Finch believes the measure could [have] cut costs rather than add to them. Instead, he, estimates the cleanup costs on the building are somewhere in the millions.

But again, no listeners. Until they start heeding his word, Finch promises to keep at it sending newsletters and e-mails so others can make decisions he couldn't. In the process, he's been called a kook and a troublemaker, but that's fine with him.

"I wear those badges proudly," he said. "People say I'm cynical, but it's not without reason. I don't just wake up in the morning and try to figure out who to snarl at."

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Tim Schmitt covers the city of Tonawanda government for the Tonawanda News. Write to him at <schmittt@gnnewspaper.com>

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COMMENTS:

* FACTS was originally started by Ralph Krieger, Jim Rauch and Don Finch. Later on, they were joined by Tom Schafer.

* Building 14 was only one of the many buildings and ground areas that were contaminated with the left over uranium processing contamination.

* Building 14 still has contamination in and around the foundation of the building.

* As for the lump-sum compensation, those who have applied have found that it nearly impossible to be eligible to collect.

Don

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