The Buffalo News - Southern Suburbs - BETHLEHEM STEEL

Agency reverses on N-workers' aid money

By DOUGLAS TURNER

News Washington Bureau Chief

3/23/2004

WASHINGTON - The federal government has reversed itself on aid eligibility for Bethlehem Steel Corp. employees whose health suffered because they worked on nuclear materials at the Lackawanna facility.

Payments of as much as $150,000 for hundreds of Western New Yorkers are at stake.

A 2000 federal law offered compensation to those who worked on the weapons program from 1949 to 1952.

But the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said last November that there was the potential that workers could have suffered harm long after the nuclear weapons-related work ceased at the site. This offered hope to hundreds of workers whose applications had been denied because they did not work there between 1949 and 1952.

Monday, however, the agency said that it made an "error" in November.

An unsigned agency announcement said its November report will be corrected to state, "Records pertaining to Bethlehem Steel, Lackawanna, indicate there is little potential for significant residual contamination at the site after weapons-related operations ended there in 1952.

"As a result of an inadvertent error, the report incorrectly said that a potential for residual contamination existed after 1952. NIOSH regrets any inconvenience that these changes to the report may cause."

Rep. Jack F. Quinn, R-Hamburg, responding to the latest finding, said, "Hundreds of Bethlehem Steel workers and their families have relied on the contents of the (November) report to not only confront the reasons behind their illnesses, but also to create hope that they may be compensated for their illnesses."

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, said, "I cannot fathom how a mistake this tragic was allowed to occur at a federal agency whose mission is to assist these harmed workers. NIOSH is making the unbelievable admission that it screwed up a report that was over a year late to Congress and has been sitting on their Web site since last November."

Slaughter said she is calling on the agency to prove that the site was cleaned up.

This may be difficult, however, because buildings where the work was conducted were razed years ago.

The latest findings could undermine support for a bill introduced by Quinn to extend federal compensation to claimants who were employed by the plant after the nuclear weapons work was said to be finished.

Slaughter and Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, are co-sponsors of the bill.

As of Sept. 30, the end of the last fiscal year, only 138 of the 907 claims filed by former Bethlehem workers had been approved.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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