Ruling delayed on funds for N-arms workers

By Dennis J. Carroll - SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Updated: 05/05/07 6:54 AM

DENVER - A federal advisory board again delayed a decision Friday on whether to speed compensation to former nuclear weapons workers at the Bethlehem Steel uraniumrolling plant in Lackawanna.

The delay by the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health came after discussion of whether government health and radiation experts could legally use data on radiation levels taken from the former Simonds Saw and Steel plant in Lockport to determine possible radiation exposure levels at the Lackawanna plant.

The board put off the decision pending further information. The matter is expected to be taken up again at the board's June 11 meeting in Denver.

The site question is a major point of contention. Former workers and their advocates argue that the Simonds facility was too dissimilar to the Lackawanna plant to draw meaningful comparisons.

The Lackawanna facility rolled uranium into bars for processing at other nuclearweapons sites in the late 1940s and early 1950s. An estimated 20,000 people were employed at the plant.

The delay is one of numerous times the board has put off a decision on whether to recommend that the Department of Health and Human Services grant the facility a "special exposure cohort" status.

That designation would speed the awarding of a $150,000 compensation, medical payment package to workers, or their survivors, whose health was damaged by exposure to radiation.

It would mean the workers could avoid the arduous "dose reconstruction" process in which the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health attempts to determine whether individual workers qualify for the compensation based on estimates of the amount of radiation they were exposed to, and the types of cancer they contracted.

The compensation package for the estimated 600,000 Americans, or their survivors, who built the U.S. nuclear arsenal during the Cold War years at scores of weapons sites across the country, was authorized in federal legislation enacted in 2000. Former Lackawanna workers contend that NIOSH has not been able to show that it could reliably estimate the levels of radiation at the plant.

NIOSH scientists "do not realize what those workers went through," former worker Ed Walker told the board Thursday in a conference call from Buffalo. Walker also charged that NIOSH never consulted with workers until after their radiation estimates had been completed.

He said that the questionnaires sent to workers were confusing and of little value to many workers or their survivors who were asked to recall plant conditions from more than 50 years ago.

In a letter to the board, five members of New York's congressional delegation called on the panel to approve the workers' application.

"We believe this petition should be promptly approved so as to give the necessary relief to former workers and their families, who have struggled for decades because of dangerous exposure to radiation and other particulates," the letter said.

The letter was signed by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Charles E. Schumer, and Reps. Brian Higgins, Thomas M. Reynolds, and Louise M. Slaughter.

Copyright 2007 The Buffalo News