The Buffalo News - Southern Suburbs
FOCUS: NUCLEAR WORKERS
Program to compensate those who suffered cancer after working on government projects triggers anger, frustration
By JOHN F. BONFATTI
News Staff Reporter
"Don't hold your breath."
That's the blunt advice Frank Panasuk has for people who think they might get federal money because they, or their loved ones, got cancer after working at one of Western New York's plants that handled material for government nuclear projects.
Earlier this month, the federal government admitted that most of those sites remained a deadly threat to workers long after the weapons work was completed.
That news raised the hopes of many people hoping to get money under a program designed to compensate atomic workers.
But many of those already in the program feel bitter and angry about how their cases have been handled.
Panasuk, 49, who filed a claim with his sister on behalf of his late father, Frank Sr., has come to see the federal Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program as a mirage.
Others agree with that assessment.
"It's a sham," said Edwin Walker, 70, who, like Frank Panasuk Sr., worked at Bethlehem Steel Corp. during the time that the federal government now acknowledges it rolled uranium for the country's fledgling nuclear program.
Like many others, Walker, a bricklayer who subsequently got bladder cancer, filed a claim seeking the roughly $150,000 lump sum payment the government set up for workers, or their survivors, who got certain cancers after working at the sites.
And like many others locally, Walker's claim has been denied, although he's waiting to hear the results of an appeal.
"They made an ass out of me for two years," he said. "If they hadn't told me (about the program), I would have died happy. Now, it's like they're taunting me."
Largest number of cases
There are 13 Western New York sites on the list of 362 facilities nationwide eligible under the program, established by Congress in 2000 to compensate workers who, unbeknownst to most of them, handled nuclear materials and later developed cancer.
But Bethlehem Steel, which employed 22,000 people at its peak, has easily drawn the most cases locally.
Bethlehem Steel has been listed in 907 cases, and 127 of those cases have been approved, netting claimants a total of $18.8 million. Another 470 cases have been denied.
The settlements, and the denials, revolve around what happened at the Lackawanna steel plant some 50 years ago.
On a number of weekends during 1951 and 1952, Bethlehem Steel rolled 5-inch billets of natural uranium into 11/2-inch rods for loading into government nuclear reactors. Bethlehem also performed uranium rolling experiments to help design a government mill in Fernald, Ohio.
But since there are no records of who specifically worked at the bar mill during these procedures, the government has had to develop a complicated formula, called a matrix, essentially to estimate the dosage workers may have received.
The Bethlehem Steel matrix was principally designed for the government by the Williamsville firm MJW Corp.
It uses some of the few existing records about the uranium work at the plant - air exposure measurements taken by the government - and was designed to skew heavily toward inhalation of uranium dust during the time the work was done.
Many claimants say there are other factors that need to be considered.
Ore dust for lunch
"We'd eat our lunch right there in that area," Walker said. "You'd have a glass to drink, and this ore would settle in your glass. You'd blow off what you could see, but it was on your sandwich and you ate it."
Panasuk, whose father worked at the bar mill from 1947 to 1981 and died of stomach and colon cancer in 1987, said contaminants remained in the building after the government work was done.
"They said they cleaned up the mill, but you can't do that, it's a mile long," he said. "They had a lot more exposure than the model allowed for."
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which was in charge of reconstructing radiation doses for workers, acknowledged that the Bethlehem Steel model places the greatest weight on the threat from inhalation.
But ingestion wasn't ignored in the model, said Jim Neton, the institute's technical program manager.
"The main hazard we see is from inhalation," said Jim Neton, technical program manager for the institute. "We're not saying ingestion is not a hazard, but if you had to rank them, ingestion would be much lower than inhalation."
The institute would consider making changes to the model if new information is made available, Neton said.
"If we were furnished evidence that ingestion was a much greater hazard than we had in our document, we would consider it," Neton said.
Worries about timeliness
Richard Miller, a longtime critic of the compensation program for the Government Accountability Program, understands the frustration many Western New York claimants feel. But he is actually optimistic about the way things are going.
"What I see is light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
First, the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, after a false start that led to a lengthy delay, has come up with a better procedure for handling dose reconstructions more efficiently.
"The second thing is they underestimated the amount of manpower it was going to take, and they've doubled that," he said.
Miller also said that he's impressed with the makeup of an advisory board put in place to review the overall fairness of the procedures set up to administer the program.
"They've retained genuinely independent experts on the Department of Energy and on atomic weapons production, including the facilities involved, to audit whether or not these site profiles and individual dose reconstructions are credible and reasonable," he said.
Miller said he knows that's slim consolation to those who have been disappointed so far, "but what it does say is that there's a strategy to move things quickly; it's not just a black hole. And there is accountability."
But the push to speed up the processing of claims may lead to mistakes, Miller said.
"Be careful if you force NIOSH to work too quickly," he cautioned. "You may not like the answer you get back (because) the answer you may get is a rushed answer."
Matter of patience
For many claimants who have waited two years for an answer - or who feel they've been improperly denied - patience is running thin.
"I think it's completely ridiculous," said Theresa Sweeney, 66, whose late husband, James, worked on the "hot gang" with Walker.
Sweeney cites the problems she has had getting forms the government claims they've sent her, and the government claims it has not received information she knows she sent.
"In retrospect . . . I have had nothing but problems," she said.
The frustration is being felt in the offices of Western New York's elected officials.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., on Friday announced that legislation had been approved to take a look at the reasons why claims have been denied and whether the government agencies involved have sufficiently shared vital information.
"This is sort of the interim step," said Clinton spokesman Joe Householder. "The whole notion of these reports is to give Congress information to drive reforms of this program to make sure that everyone who deserves compensation gets it."
Two members of Western New York's congressional delegation - Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, and Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg - are co-sponsors of legislation that would allow those people who worked at the sites after the government atomic work was completed to file claims.
"There are not a lot of co-sponsors on that bill, and it's up to Louise and I to get more (members of Congress) to show support," Quinn said.
Both Slaughter and Quinn agreed that it almost looks like the existing program is designed to confuse and frustrate claimants to the point where they just give up.
"I don't see any way around this . . . they don't want to pay the money," Slaughter said.
Some of the local claimants, including Panasuk, have decided they have a better chance of getting results if they band together. They are holding a meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Big Tree Fire Hall, 4307 South Park Ave., Hamburg.
"This program has turned into nothing more than a lottery," Panasuk said, adding that compensation seems to have gone to "a lucky few whose numbers popped up on a computer program, and the rest are out of luck."
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