Senate gives N-workers from '50s hope for compensation


News Washington Bureau Chief


WASHINGTON - The Senate on Thursday gave thousands of aging survivors of a Cold War hydrogen bomb program in the Buffalo Niagara region a measure of hope that they finally may be compensated for exposure to nuclear radiation.

Even though the Senate passed the aid bill unanimously, however, final passage is in doubt.

That is partly because Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, whose district includes many potential claimants, helped the Republican leadership kill a companion House measure in committee.

The Senate bill sponsored by Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both D-N.Y., would make many of those exposed to enriched uranium in the 1950s, or their survivors, eligible for payments of up to $150,000 each.

The Senate bill also would create a "resource center" to advise exposed workers at plants in Buffalo, Lackawanna, the Tonawandas, Niagara Falls and Lockport who have so far been denied help.

There are upward of 1,200 people in Buffalo Niagara - many suffering from lung, colon and other forms of cancer - and their survivors, who might be eligible under the Democratic legislation, and many thousands more across the nation.

Despite the suffering experienced by those workers and their families, prospects for final passage are slim.

The House Republican leadership, in concert with the Bush administration, quietly killed a companion bill in the House Rules Committee.

Among those voting against the House version was Reynolds, a powerful Rules Committee member who represents many potential claimants in Niagara County. Reynolds is also chairman of the GOP congressional campaign.

A prominent Republican co-sponsor of the House legislation, retiring Rep. Jack F. Quinn of Hamburg, did not speak on behalf of his legislation at the Rules Committee meeting in May. Nor did Quinn send any testimony to the committee supporting the bill originally introduced by Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport.

Quinn had been meeting with families of former Bethlehem Steel workers who had been denied aid because of an administrative ruling.

"I'm really disappointed," Frank J. Panasuk of Hamburg said when he heard of what happened - or didn't happen - in the Rules Committee.

Panasuk, chairman of Bethlehem Steel Radiation Victims and Survivors, said his group "had some real good planning meetings with Quinn, Hillary Clinton" and a member of Reynolds' staff.

"We were pretty hopeful they would do something," Panasuk said.

One Buffalo-area man who had been working with Quinn on the issue, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "I guess Mr. Quinn retired a little early."

Quinn, who is not seeking re-election, could not be reached to comment.

But Michael Brady, Reynolds' chief of staff, said Slaughter brought up her bill at a Rules meeting in violation of the established "processes" of the House.

Brady said Reynolds' vote merely upheld the procedures of the House. Slaughter should have pushed her bill through a standing committee, such as Education & the Workforce, instead of going through Rules to get it on the floor, Brady said.

Richard Miller, senior analyst of the Governmental Accountability Project, took issue with that: "Listen, the Rules Committee is really a function of what the House leadership wants to do."

Miller said the Rules Committee clears many emergency bills that the leadership wants to pass, when it wants them passed.

At issue is whether the government will compensate any workers who said they were exposed to radiation after 1952.

That is when a semi-independent agency said the government stopped preparing uranium and other nuclear weapons material in the Buffalo Niagara region for shipment to its Savannah River, Ga., plant for H-bomb assembly.

Anyone working in any of the plants after 1952 was ineligible for help, the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health said last year. The Clinton-Schumer-Slaughter bills would extend eligibility beyond 1952.

Just as the Rules Committee was preparing to act on Slaughter's bill, the White House Office of Management and Budget sent an advisory opposing any expansion of the nuclear aid program.

Besides Bethlehem, other facilities affect were:

Bliss & Laughlin Steel, Buffalo; Ashland Oil, Linde Ceramics, and Seaway Industrial Park, Town of Tonawanda; Titanium Alloys Manufacturing, Niagara Falls; and Simonds Steel, Lockport.

Bureau assistant Breann Howell contributed to this report.


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