The Buffalo News
Payments for uranium exposure possible
Would aid employees of Bethlehem Steel
By DOUGLAS L. TURNER and JOHN F. BONFATTI
News Staff Reporters
WASHINGTON - A long-awaited bipartisan agreement has been reached on a bill to compensate workers injured by radiation exposure from making hydrogen bombs, including hundreds from the old Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna.
Both New York senators and all members of the Erie Niagara delegation in the House agreed Tuesday to support the bill.
It would give the workers a second chance at qualifying for up to $150,000 plus medical benefits that was once denied by the Bush administration's Labor Department on grounds that physical proof of radiation exposure was not available.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said, "These workers who were hurt in the line duty have got to be repaid."
Those who worked at Bethlehem and other H-bomb sites from 1949 through 1952 would be aided under the legislation.
"This bill frees suffering workers and their families from a process that has failed them for too long," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, whose district includes the Lackawanna site.
With Congress controlled by Republicans, the support of Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, is considered crucial to the bill's success in this session that will run to Dec. 31, 2006. Reynolds will be the lead sponsor in the House.
"No one who deserves compensation should have it denied, period," said Reynolds. "This legislation will fulfill a national commitment we made to these "Veterans of the Cold War' by providing them with compensation that is long overdue."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said the legislation "faces an uphill fight" because the Bush administration is opposed to expanding the benefit program enacted in 2000.
Clinton said the bill "will enable employees to be added to a "special exposure (category)' and receive compensation under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program if exposure records do not enable case-by-case decisions to be made."
Clinton said, "Too many applicants for this help have been unjustifiably turned down."
To be eligible for reconsideration under this category, Clinton explained, they must have worked at an eligible facility for a total of 250 days, and fewer than half the workers at the plant were monitored for radiation exposure, and exposure records are not available.
She said the bill can affect other H-bomb production sites.
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, said, "Despite many incidences of work-related illnesses and deaths, employees across this country have not found relief because of insufficient records that not only delay site profiles, but also make dose reconstruction virtually impossible."
The news was welcomed by Ed Walker of the Bethlehem Steel Action Group, which has pushed the government to extend special category status to the thousands of former Bethlehem Steel workers who have filed claims under the program.
The government has acknowledged Bethlehem Steel workers were exposed to radiation during uranium rolling operations at the plant in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
"It's finally here, the day we've all been hoping and praying for," said Walker, a former bricklayer at the plant. "It's a great breakthrough for us. We feel we have been unfairly treated and this is bringing some justice to the group and the program."
The Department of Labor has denied Bethlehem Steel employees any compensation for their sickness if they worked there after 1952, after H-bomb operations there stopped.
The bill does not appear to address the problems of those post-1952 workers. Critics of this ruling about post-1952 workers said the Department of Labor failed to take into account the dangers of lingering contamination of the facilities at which the work took place - ignoring that some materials can remain radioactive for thousands of years.
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