Closed meeting set on radiation exposure

Special panel to hear lawyers on issue involving former Bethlehem workers

By Dennis J. Carroll


DENVER - Efforts to speed compensation promised to former nuclear-weapons workers at what was then the Lackawanna Bethlehem Steel plant hit yet another snag Monday when a White House-appointed advisory panel declined to discuss publicly a major issue involving the workers' petition.

Lewis Wade, executive secretary to the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, said the board will hold a closed-door session next month on whether government scientists and health experts can use data from other sites to estimate radiation exposure levels at particular former nuclear weapons facilities.

In the Lackawanna case, scientists from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have relied in part on data gathered from the Simonds Saw and Steel plant in Lockport to estimate exposure of workers at the Lackawanna facility, where uranium was rolled into bars for processing at other Atomic Energy Commission facilities.

Former Lackawanna workers contend that the Simonds plant was too dissimilar to make meaningful comparisons. Wade said lawyers from the Department of Health and Human Services have cited attorney-client privilege in refusing to discuss the issue in public.

Wade said they do not want to disclose discussions they might have had with Michael Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services, or other department officials. He said federal law allows the board to hold such closed-door sessions.

The board then would be free to discuss the matter in open session and make its recommendations on the Lackawanna site, Wade added. Paul L. Ziemer, board chairman and former head of the School of Health Sciences at Purdue University, said some board members have asked about the legal basis for using radiation data from one site to estimate exposure levels at a similar facility.

"We want to do everything open, but we have had closed sessions before when we are doing our contracts, for example," Ziemer said. "The board has not asked for it to be closed. The attorneys have told us that's necessary for them to divulge what it is they have advised the secretary on that issue."

In the late 1940s and early '50s, the Lackawanna facility, under a contract with the Atomic Energy Commission, rolled uranium into bars for processing at other nuclear weapons sites. Former workers, many ailing and now in their 80s, or their survivors say that exposure to radiation from the uranium caused hundreds of workers to become ill and that many have died from their illnesses.

Monday's delay is one of numerous occasions over several years when the board has taken up Lackawanna plant issues but put off a decision on whether to recommend that the Department of Health and Human Services grant the facility a "special exposure" status.

The designation would mean the workers or their survivors could avoid the arduous process in which NIOSH 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.

NIOSH documents indicate about 700 Bethlehem workers or their survivors have filed claims for the $150,000 compensation and medical-benefits package promised to workers around the country in federal legislation in 2000.

One member of the White House-appointed board that monitors the program said the law should be rewritten.

"The system should not create heartache," said Dr. James Lockey, professor and director of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Cincinnati and a member of the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health.

Lockey, who said he was speaking for himself and not the board, said the Energy Employees Occupational Injury Program Act of 2000 is "much more time consuming and complex" than intended both for the government workers who administer it and the aging and ailing atomic weapons workers who are supposed to benefit from it.

Copyright 2007 The Buffalo News